Bitton-Ashkelony, Brouria 1956–

views updated

Bitton-Ashkelony, Brouria 1956–

(Bruria Bitton-Ashkelony)


Born March 2, 1956. Education: Bar-Ilan University, Israel, B.A., 1980; University of Jerusalem and Bar-Ilan University, Israel, M.A., 1985; Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ph.D., 1996.


Office—The Hebrew University, Mt. Scopus, Jerusalem 91905, Israel. E-mail—[email protected].


Theologian, educator, writer, and editor. The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel, lecturer in the department of comparative religion, 1999-2005, acting director of the Center for the Study of Christianity, 1999-2001, director of the Joint Center for Eretz-Israel Studies in Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 2002—, senior lecturer, 2005—, chairperson of the department, 2005—. Post-doctoral fellowship at Wolfson College and the Oriental Institute at Oxford, 1997-98.


Kennedy Lee Prize, 1996, for excellent Ph.D. dissertation; Sir Sigmund Sternberg Prize, department of comparative religion, 1997, for interfaith understanding; Golda Meir Fellowship, the Hebrew University, 2000. Recipient of numerous grants.


Aliyah Le-regel: Tefisot U-teguvot Be-sifrut Avot Hakenesiyah Uva-sifrut Ha-nezirit Ba-me'ot Harevi'it-shishit (doctoral thesis), Hebrew University (Jerusalem, Israel), 1995.

(Editor, with Aryeh Kofsky) Christian Gaza in Late Antiquity, Brill (Boston, MA), 2004.

Encountering the Sacred: The Debate on Christian Pilgrimage in Late Antiquity, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2005.

(With Aryeh Kofsky) The Monastic School of Gaza, Brill (Boston, MA), 2006.

Contributor to books, including Transformations of the Inner Self in Ancient Religions, edited by J. Assmann and G. Stroumsa, Brill, 1999; Jerusalem: Its Sanctity and Centrality to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, 1999; The Armenians in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, edited by M. Stone, R. Ervine and N. Stone, Leuven, 2002; Christians and Christianity in the Holy Land, edited by O. Limor and G. Stroumsa, Brepols, Turnhout, 2006. Contributor to periodicals, including Cathedra and Le Muséon. Member of the editorial board of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 2004—.


Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony is a professor of religion whose interests include religious thought and behavior in late antique and Byzantine Christianity, pilgrimage, monastic culture, and mysticism and prayer in Greek and Syriac literature. Her 2005 book, Encountering the Sacred: The Debate on Christian Pilgrimage in Late Antiquity, was called "an innovative and valuable study" by Lisa R. Holliday in the Journal of Religious History. Holliday added: "Challenging many of the common conceptions about pilgrimage, her work provides a new way of evaluating the views of Christian writers."

In her study, the author examines the rise of pilgrimage all over the Christian world in late antiquity within the context of the political and theological debates of the time. "In a formidably learned and up-to-date account, Brouria Bitton-Ashkelony focuses with ruthless directedness on the fourth and early fifth centuries, with relatively few excursions even as late as the sixth century and none into the pre-Christian period," noted Jas' Elsner in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History. "The advantages of this approach are to highlight the intense and interesting debates."

Writing in the book's introduction, the author explains another important focus of her book. Bitton-Ashkelony notes: "Indeed, I shall suggest that we abandon the term ‘popular religion’ in the context of pilgrimage in the period under discussion. Once freed of this hindrance, a wide range of motives and tensions that gave rise to the various viewpoints of the Christian authors on pilgrimage is disclosed. It seems to me more profitable to approach this debate in terms of religious identity and to perceive it as a debate on one component—the encounter with the sacred—of a society in the process of shaping its identity."

The author continues to define her book's focus in the introduction, especially concerning the definition of pilgrimage and the importance of space versus place. She notes: "The definition of pilgrimage as formulated here encompasses various centers of holiness throughout the late-antique Christian world. Hence Jerusalem and the holy places in Palestine, though crucial, are not the sole focus of this discussion. Rather, I prefer to examine how leading figures of that time perceived and reacted to the very idea of encounter with sacred space in its various manifestations. The axis of this study, then, is the stance of Christian writers on the nature of sacred space itself and not merely its geographical location."

In her book, the author asks how the emerging notion of a sacred geography challenged the time's leading intellectuals and ecclesiastical authorities. She examines how a territory of grace became a territory of power and how ancient writers responded to the rising practice of pilgrimage. She also looks at their thinking on the advantages and disadvantages of pilgrimages and the theological and ecclesiastical motivations for this thinking. Julie Ann Smith noted in Church History: "The book engages with the responses of leading theologians in the fourth and fifth centuries to the rising phenomena of formation of Christian sacred landscape and its concomitant pilgrimage to the historic places of the faith. The multiplicity of ideas about, and reservations to, the cult of holy place and pilgrimage examined in this book reveals that no definitive theology was developed."

In her book, Bitton-Ashkelony questions the long-held belief of scholars that pilgrimages may have been popular but were not an elite religious practice. In addition to Greek and Latin sources, the author makes use of Syriac material to provide a broader picture of the emerging theology of landscape that so influenced society over the fourth to sixth centuries.

"It is an eminently readable book with a wealth of acute observations, and it displays an impressively broad mastery of both the primary sources and the secondary literature," Bryn Mawr Classical Review contributor Pieter Van der Horst wrote of Encountering the Sacred. He added: "This is a delightful book from which there is much to be learned." Andrew Jacobs wrote in the Catholic Historical Review that the book "is an enormously learned volume, superbly written and notated, required reading for students of early Christian pilgrimage and monasticism. Bitton-Ashkelony dispenses with the typical frameworks for discussing Christian theologies of space—most notably (and perhaps a bit hastily) the persistent influence of Platonism—and in so doing presents us with theologians and theorists who are always responsive and reactive."

Bitton-Ashkelony is also coeditor, with Aryeh Kofsky, of Christian Gaza in Late Antiquity. The editors present a collection of thirteen studies that provide an overview of recent research into the history of late antique Gaza. The papers represent a combination of Palestinian and Israeli scholarship on the topic and were first intended for presentation at a conference in Jerusalem and Gaza in 2000. However, renewed violence in the region stopped the conference from being held.

"Gaza and its environs were the last pagan stronghold in late antique Palestine," the editors write in the book's introduction. "From the early fifth century on, the city developed into a flourishing and important Christian center with a celebrated school of rhetoric and leading monastic communities scattered around it." The editors add: "Much scholarly energy has been devoted to exploring the transition from paganism to Christianity in Gaza as well as its school of rhetoric and its prominent figures."

Among the book's essay topics are the continuity of pagan culture in Christian Gaza and a look at the public life to reveal a city embodying a unique synthesis of the new and old worlds. Several authors address the monastic life that developed in the region between the fourth and seventh centuries, including a focus on the correspondence of the community's spiritual leaders, Barsanuphius and John. Included are papers that provide an archaeological survey of the monasteries of Gaza and a discussion of the council of Chalcedon.

"A monograph on the monasticism of fifth- and sixth-century Gaza has been a desideratum of scholarship for some time and this book … fulfills the requirement without closing the door on future research which may find more to say," wrote Graham Gould in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History. Gould called Christian Gaza in Late Antiquity "a sound and sympathetic … interpretation of the spirituality of a somewhat neglected phase in the history of monasticism."



Bitton-Ashkelony, Brouria, and Aryeh Kofsky, editors, Christian Gaza in Late Antiquity, Brill (Boston, MA), 2004.

Bitton-Ashkelony, Brouria, Encountering the Sacred: The Debate on Christian Pilgrimage in Late Antiquity, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2005.


American Historical Review, April, 2007, Daniel F. Caner, review of Encountering the Sacred: The Debate on Christian Pilgrimage in Late Antiquity, p. 564.

Bryn Mawr Classical Review, May, 2006, Pieter Van der Horst, review of Encountering the Sacred.

Catholic Historical Review, January, 2007, Andrew Jacobs, review of Encountering the Sacred, p. 131.

Church History, March, 2007, Julie Ann Smith, review of Encountering the Sacred, p. 158.

Journal of Ecclesiastical History, October, 2006, Jas' Elsner, review of Encountering the Sacred, p. 744; October, 2007, Graham Gould, review of The Monastic School of Gaza, p. 733.

Journal of Theological Studies, April, 2007, John Binns, review of The Monastic School of Gaza, p. 321.

Medieval Review, May, 2006, Pieter W. van der Horst, review of Encountering the Sacred.

Reference & Research Book News, November, 2004, review of Christian Gaza in Late Antiquity, p. 21; May, 2006, review of The Monastic School of Gaza.


Hebrew University of Jerusalem Department of Comparative Religion Web site, (June 22, 2008), faculty profile of author.

Journal of Religious History, (June 2, 2008), Lisa R. Holliday, review of Encountering the Sacred.

Oxbow Books Web site, (June 22, 2008), overview of Christian Gaza in Late Antiquity.