Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.08.15

Philip Rousseau, The Early Christian Centuries.   London:  Longman Pearson Education, 2002.  Pp. viii, 333.  ISBN 0-582-25653-4.  $25.00.  

Reviewed by H. A. Drake, University of California, Santa Barbara (
Word count: 1494 words

Early Christianity is a subject on which the last word will never be written. Nevertheless, when such heavyweights as Henry Chadwick and Peter Brown have only recently weighed in, it gets harder for an author to justify writing yet another study.1 What Philip Rousseau brings to the topic, in addition to a lifetime of reflecting on the issue, is a conviction that traditional books on this subject have gotten it wrong, being "too preoccupied with the development of doctrine and church order" (vi). This, in Rousseau's view, puts the cart before the horse. Before there was either doctrine or a hierarchy there were faith-driven individuals brought together by an urgent need to understand how to order their lives. Accordingly, his aim is to refocus the subject on Christianity as a teaching and learning community, devoted primarily to the spiritual formation of its members. Tracing this phenomenon occupies six of the book's nine chapters and roughly half of the total pages. In the final three chapters, Rousseau puts forward two additional theses: the Constantinian period was less of a watershed than it is usually thought to have been and the end of ancient Christianity should be postponed from the fifth century to the seventh. A brief epilogue on "The Price of Success" reprises these themes.

Chapter order and topics reflect the author's agenda. In an introductory chapter ("Giving Shape to Early Christian History"), Rousseau discusses the ease with which later preoccupations can be read back into the study of earliest Christian history and admits that evidence for the type of study he wants to undertake must be deduced "from a small number of documents written by an unrepresentative elite" (5). The next two chapters discuss the missionary activities of St. Paul and the gospel accounts of Jesus -- in that order, because, as Rousseau points out, even though Jesus preceded Paul chronologically, the gospel accounts came later. Accordingly, a truer picture of Paul and the communities he founded can be gleaned from his letters, supplemented by Acts, unfiltered by those later narratives. The exercise uncovers an early community beset by "status inconsistency," but one that became more complex and more self-confident quite early. The gospels are products of these communities and should be read as reflections on the life of Jesus that reflect their different experiences and needs. The struggle to define a canon of Christian writing reflects the process whereby the historical Jesus became "the universal savior." The effort to define the right balance between the "historical" and "cosmic" Jesus (terms Rousseau finds more useful than "human" and "divine") underlies most of the conflict.

Chapters 4-6 develop an alternative to the traditional presentations of Christian history as "three victories: over error, idolatry and the Roman state," meaning victories over heresy, Greco-Roman culture and persecution, respectively (85). Ch. 4, "Individual Virtue and Its Social Setting," takes up heresy, which Rousseau fits into the larger question of Christian unity -- a process driven not by abstract notions of orthodoxy but by the "simple question [of] how one should live" (85). Unity, once achieved, created the climate for orthodoxy, not vice versa. Ch. 5, "Churches as Learning Communities," argues that "the function of a Christian community [is] to teach" (124). The Church consisted of small communities of learners wherein "patterns of formation" distinctive to Christianity were instilled. Rousseau warns against the assumption that Christian history is all a matter of "thinkers and ideas" and suggests that even intellectuals like Clement and Origen are best seen as teachers first. The importance of the local community is such that it explains why someone like Tertullian never crossed the border into heresy even in his most extreme writings.

Ch. 6, "Heroes and Survivors: Christians Engage with the World," uses the martyrs to study Christian views of both death and leadership. Martyrs should be seen less as a repudiation of the Roman state and more as yet another means of engaging the broader community, as apologists "in bolder tones" (166). They inspired Origen as well as Hippolytus and Tertullian, and yet, even though Origen had more breadth than the latter two, all three stood for a looser church order than the one which developed early in the third century. This Church was ready to meet Constantine on its own terms.

The nature of that engagement is the subject of Ch. 7, which has the unwieldy title of "The Christian Empire, a Contested Experiment: Constantine and His Successors." Rousseau's chief point is that the major features of the post-Constantinian Church had already been put into place in the previous century. Constantine's conversion, moreover, "would have been unintelligible" without the prior development of both greater social visibility for Christians and syncretism in Roman religion. A Christian emperor did, however, facilitate a new Christian vision of the empire as a mimesis of the heavenly kingdom, as expressed particularly by Eusebius of Caesarea. Bishops subsequently found it easier to associate political weakness with religious disunity and to call upon the coercive power of the state to suppress heresy and schism.

The alliance worked so long as Christian emperors enjoyed success in their imperial conflicts, but defeat, along with doubts about the new criteria for leadership, generated "A Crisis of Authority," the subject of Ch. 8. Both emperors and bishops protected their legitimacy by fighting heresy and promoting asceticism. The "crisis of authority" thus underlies both Augustine's City of God and the Council of Chalcedon, both of which have been used to indicate the end of ancient Christianity. Rousseau, however, argues that only the challenges were new; ways of defining and responding to them were still the product of "long-standing customs and habits" (276). Ch. 9, "An Ancient Legacy and Its Post-Roman Future," proposes the 7th century as a better watershed, as the eastern empire became increasingly engaged with Islam and estranged from the west. In a brief epilogue, "The Price of Success," Rousseau completes his argument, pointing out that, by the end of the 6th century, Christians had dealt with the major theological and terminological difficulties posed by their god-man, and the bishop -- institutionally Christianity's most significant invention -- was firmly installed as the arbiter of both discourse and cult.

In focusing on the teaching and learning function of early Christian communities, Rousseau has performed an important service. His potential readers would have been better served had the book's title reflected this purpose. As it is, readers who expect a survey or introduction to the subject are likely to be confused and frustrated, for despite its coverage (600 years in a little more than 300 pages of text), this book is neither. All the usual suspects appear on these pages, and Rousseau has fascinating, insightful things to say about all of them., but he frequently elides the basics. Ch. 4, for instance, makes interesting connections between Montanism, Tertullian and virtue, but all the reader will learn about Montanism in this chapter is that Montanus was not "strictly speaking" gnostic (118). She would have to go back to ch. 2 to learn that he was "the great Phrygian prophet of the later second century" (66), To learn anything more about the scope or appeal of the movement it will be necessary to consult one of the volumes in the rich bibliographies that Rousseau provides for this purpose at the end of each chapter (each one ending with a "Where to begin?" choice of one book from the list -- a refreshing feature that more of us should adopt).

Rousseau's focus on the community functions of early Christianity can also lead to some slightly off-center judgments. It is arresting, for instance, to find Eusebius of Caesarea's Demonstratio Evangelica, a work written with the apologetic purpose of proving Christianity's superiority (and priority) to Judaism, characterized as an exploration of "the relation between law and individual responsibility" that stressed the importance of "a keen sense of community" (211). There is a sense in which such thoughts can be said to be at play in this work, but it is not certain that even Eusebius would have wanted this to be the first, much less the only, idea for a new reader to take from his book.

Still, being off-center is a way to come at familiar topics with the kind of fresh perspective that leads to important new insights, and this book is filled with just that. By juxtaposing imperial and episcopal authority (topics usually treated separately) into a single gargantuan Chapter 8 that also discusses invasions, Ambrose, Basil of Caesarea, Augustine and the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, Rousseau finds a common denominator to the problem of authority: "once the effective authority of God had been called into doubt, people started to wonder whether any authority could claim legitimacy" (263).

Such thoughts are worth the price of admission. What is that price? In his preface, Rousseau says he wants readers who are "prepared to devote the reflective attention necessary" to the topic (vi). Take him at his word.


1.   H. Chadwick, The Church in Ancient Society: From Galilee to Gregory the Great, Oxford History of the Christian Church (Oxford, 2001). P. Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A. D. 200-1000 (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996). See also E. Ferguson, ed., Recent Studies in Early Christianity (New York: Garland, 1999).

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