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Doctoral Students Study Byzantine Greece by Traveling to the Source


Two doctoral candidates in the Department of Theology spent five weeks last summer immersed in the world of Byzantine Greece.

Matt Briel and Jon Stanfill, both students in Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies program, earned full scholarships to an intensive program at the Gennadius Library of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece.

They focused on Byzantine Greek, the language used in Greece from the fourth century A.D. until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Unlike Classical Greek, it is rarely taught in the United States, but it is essential for scholars of Orthodox Christianity.

The topic of Stanfill’s dissertation is a homily delivered by John Chrysostom in the fourth century that has never been translated into English.

“Some texts are closer to the vernacular, or what we call the common language, while others are rhetorical and have all the literary flourishes of a highly trained writer,” he explained. “Getting exposure to these varied types of texts was great.”

Stanfill said that 55 people applied for the program but only 11 were admitted. Participants hailed from various academic backgrounds, including classics, art history and history.

Fordham was the only university to send students from its theology program, and the only school with more than one participant, he said.

In addition to days filled with translating, reading and tutoring, the pair took trips to sites that are important to their work, such as Corinth, Sparta and Thessaloniki.

“It was great to read these historic texts, but then we’d reinforce our readings by seeing the world of Byzantinia that still exists in Greece,” he said.

“When we went to the Acropolis, the head of the restoration project gave us a tour. He actually took us inside the Parthenon, which is completely off-limits to regular visitors.”

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Matt Briel and Jon Stanfill take a break in the Byzantine town of Mystras, Greece. contributed photo

For Briel, the trip was an opportunity to delve deeper into his specialty, which is Byzantine Thomism.

“Greeks in the 14th and 15th century, just before the Protestant Reformation, became interested in Thomas Aquinas,” Briel said. “I’m interested in how the Orthodox world began adapting the ideas of Thomas Aquinas, who seemed too Western and Latin, into its theological system.

“The paleography component of the program was helpful because some of the things I’m studying are still in manuscript form,” he said. “It’s like looking at census records from 100 years ago; sometimes the handwriting can be very difficult.”

After completing their work in Greece, Briel and Stanfill traveled to England to join six Fordham faculty members and nine students at Oxford’s 16th International Conference on Patristic Studies. Both presented papers there, and Stanfill said that the conference provided a great opportunity to network with friends and colleagues.

“I’m slotted to teach Byzantine Christianity in the spring. I’m so excited to teach, and even more so now, having experienced Byzantine Greece for a month,” he said.


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