On the Toll Houses Again: A Byzantinist’s Thoughts


by Eirini Afentoulidou

David Bentley Hart’s recent article on the toll houses is very welcome in that the discussion has turned away from refuting the occasional “pro-toller” to a scholarly and detached examination of texts and contexts and the theological implications of their worldview. I do not intend to explain that the notion of the aerial toll houses has never been the official dogma of the Orthodox Church, as this has been demonstrated in other publications, notably by Stephen Shoemaker on Public Orthodoxy (although I often have to explain this to colleagues who are not acquainted with how theological authority worked in Byzantine Christianity). References to the toll houses are found exclusively in pastoral/edifying texts, usually side-by-side with other, rival notions of posthumous judgment. There was a consensus among the theologically educated, as there is now, that attempts to speak about afterlife are figurative, fragmentary and not conclusive – although most contemporary Christians would not agree with their pre-modern co-religionists on the necessity of constantly keeping the horrors of the judgment in mind as a means to avoid doing evil. Yet, as a Byzantinist, I am fascinated by the texts on the aerial toll houses and wish to share some observations regarding two points: the democratization and the individuation of judgment that distinguish these texts from notions on posthumous judgment found in other Late Antique and Byzantine texts.

Democratization. It is not easy to find merits in the Byzantine narrations of the toll houses, but by comparing them to Gnostic texts on the passage of the soul through the aerial gates, a shift towards the democratization of salvation is hard to overlook: whereas in Gnostic texts it is an esoteric knowledge in form of a passport or password that enables a few illuminated initiates to pass through the aerial gates, in the Byzantine accounts, all deeds are converted to the same currency. There is no qualitative distinction between saints and sinners; the only difference is quantitative, and this can only be decided after all deeds have been counted.

The heroes of Byzantine tales of the toll houses are laypersons coming from diverse social standings. In one tale, it is an anonymous married clerk (a soldier in other versions) from 7th-century Carthage in North Africa. In the most detailed account on the toll houses, embedded in the Life of Saint Basil the Younger, the hero is Theodora, a slave in 10th-century Constantinople. Theodora, whom the narrator describes as “a most gentle and compassionate woman,” cohabited with the father of her two children, since slaves could not legally marry; her common-law marriage was morally equated with wedlock, though, and it was not held against her by the toll keepers, when she died. What they did accuse her of was, among other things, having sexual relations with men other than her common-law spouse, getting drunk, and dancing; however, when it came to the sins of cruelty or lack of compassion, the toll keepers could find nothing to charge her. The sins for which each toll house is responsible correspond to the ethics of their time. Accordingly, the good deeds, with which the debt of sins is paid, are not any extraordinary spiritual achievements, but everyday acts of piety and compassion. Whether such a legalistic concept is compatible with the Christian teaching of grace is debatable. Yet, it is a welcome correction to elitist trends that never quite disappeared from the Orthodox Church. For example, Symeon the New Theologian, a 10th-11th century Byzantine mystic who was much en vogue in the 20th-century neo-orthodox movement, claimed that only those who have seen God in this life can hope to see him in afterlife, and that one should only partake of the Holy Communion in tears of contrition, otherwise it is worthless; he was not impressed by counter-arguments that this is something only few experience, for, in his estimations, only one in 10,000 would accomplish salvation anyway (Hymn 50, 157-163).

Individuation. On the other side of the accounts on toll houses is another type of text on posthumous judgment, namely tales about a holy person, usually Mary, who beseeches a reluctant God and tries to persuade him to grant amnesty to the sinful humanity.* In these accounts, salvation is collective, a distant monarch’s personal favor to one of the few who has access to him. This is a worldview that fits into the social and political circumstances of Roman Late Antiquity. Compared to these tales, the accounts of the toll houses, with the minute counting of each person’s deeds and thoughts, show a remarkable degree of individuation and self-awareness. There is no place for the intercession of a patroness in these accounts; in the bleakness of the spheres between Earth and Heaven the individual is left alone with his or her deeds. If there is one thing a person can rely on, it is a functioning justice system, at least in afterlife: every single person is assigned two angels, who act as attorneys, to collect his or her good deeds to have them ready when they have to pay at the toll houses, and who do not give up until the person runs out of the last “coin.” All in all, there is a trust in institutional justice that I consider remarkable.

Personally, I find other aspects of Orthodox teaching regarding this and the other world much more meaningful than both the dependence on the intercession of a patron and the legalism of the toll houses: notably the liturgical practice of memorial services offered by a loving community of equals (at least in theory) on behalf of their deceased members. Yet, for those who want to critically engage with our Orthodox tradition, the detailed accounts of the posthumous toll houses add one more puzzle piece to the whole picture and offer some food for thought.

Sources for Further Reading:

Dirk Krausmüller, “How widespread was the belief in demonic tollgates in sixth- to ninth-century Byzantium?” Byzantinische Zeitschrift 112 (2019) 83-102.

*Jane Baun, Tales from another Byzantium. Celestial Journey and Local Community in the Medieval Greek Apocrypha. Cambridge – New York – Melbourne 2007, and Leena Mari Peltomaa – Andreas Külzer – Pauline Allen (eds.), Presbeia Theotokou. The Intercessory Role of Mary across Times and Places in Byzantium (4th-9th Century). Vienna 2015.

Eirini Afentoulidou is a research associate at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. She specializes in Byzantine language and literature and Byzantine liturgical texts.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.