Romanos and the Life of Philosophy: An Examination of Joseph and Potiphar's Wife in Early Byzantine Liturgical Poetry

The early Byzantine hymnographer, Romanos the Melodist, brought biblical stories to life in his liturgical poetry. When drawing out the moral lesson from the biblical story, Romanos often turned to philosophical categories. He weds philosophical inquiry and patterns of life with the moral vision of biblical texts in a way that reflects late antique and early Byzantine thought. Within the corpus of his extant Kontakia, one frequently encounters the vocabulary of moral and ascetic philosophy. One example of this is the use of the term katanyxis (compunction) within his kontakia “On the Woman with the flow of blood.” Through foregrounding this vocabulary, Romanos depicts her as a model penitent as observed by Derek Krueger. Romanos’s engagement with philosophy, however, goes beyond the use of vocabulary. Romanos presents biblical characters as philosophers. Romanos's re-narration of the Genesis account of Joseph and Potiphar's Wife represents a particularly dense site of philosophical analysis. Romanos constructs Joseph's character through detailed attention to his virtues, highlighting his self-control. The gendered description of Potiphar's wife becomes an excursus on feminine vice and a foil for Joseph's superior moral restraint. Joseph serves as an exemplar of self-restraint as Romanos warns men within his audience to emulate Joseph’s virtue. After a brief survey of the reception history of the Genesis text, the particular context for Romanos’s reading comes to light. Through appreciation of Romanos’s philosophical milieu, the liturgical poetry of Constantinople emerges as a place where moral theology and philosophy reached lay Christians of all social locations.