Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.39

Philip Francis Esler (ed.), The Early Christian World, 2nd ed. Routledge worlds.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2017.  Pp. 1250.  ISBN 9781351678292.  $235.00.  


Reviewed by Ine Jacobs, University College, Oxford (ine.jacobs@univ.ox.ac.uk)

Preview
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume is the revised edition of the original Early Christian World (ECW ) published in 2000. Like the 2000 version, it is a treasure trove for all things related to the origins of early Christianity, the scriptures, early Christian controversies, and the most influential early Christian figures. Considering the many insights gained in the 17 years since the publication of the first edition, the adoption of new methodologies and development of new research foci, an update was urgently needed. In addition to chapter updates, 11 articles have been revised and another 11 have been newly added, ensuring that about one quarter of this second edition is new. Some of the added chapters deal with prominent individuals (chapter 52 on Pachomius the Great and chapter 55 on Gregory of Nyssa), whereas also Manichaeism (chapter 46) now is given a place next to gnosticism, Montanism, Donatism and Arianism (chapters 42 to 45). Other new contributions reflect the growing scholarly attention to matters such as interactions between Christians and non-Christians (for instance chapter 11, “Jewish and Christian interactions from the first to the fifth centuries”), the increasing interest in non-literary sources (chapter 23, “Christian realia: papyrological and epigraphical material”) and the growing appreciation of hagiography as a historical source (chapter 25, “Saints and hagiography”). In addition, a chapter on ritual (chapter 21, “Ritual and the rise of the early Christian movement”) results from the recognition in modern-day anthropology and religious studies that religion is not only about doctrine and immaterial belief and ideas, but also tangible practices.

The current volume’s 60 chapters are grouped into ten parts. Part I is devoted to sketching the Mediterranean context in which early Christianity developed and answering how it could develop there at all. Factors including the geographic context, economy, the practical workings of the Roman Empire, the intellectual climate of the region and the spread and role of Jewish communities are discussed. The chapters in Part II analyse the earliest developments themselves, starting in Galilee in the pre-70s and ending with a rather dry historical overview of the progress of Christianity in the period between Constantine and Theodosius. Part III then focusses on community formation and maintenance, including the typical Christian monastic form of community.

Part IV turns to the everyday experience of early Christianity and covers a wide range of topics. More traditional chapters on sexual renunciation, the role of women and children in the spread and consolidation of the religion, and the principal liturgical acts of Christianity and Christian ritual are surrounded by contributions that are very different in scope and approach. The first chapter of this part of the volume deals with wax writing tablets excavated in London, the Vindolanda tablets and curse tablets found in Britain, and thus at first sight seems only tangentially linked to the theme of the ECW; What does Britain have to do with Jerusalem? Yet, it is surprisingly effective both in bringing to life aspects of daily life mentioned in the gospels and in imagining “how people from beyond the Mediterranean world might have read the New Testament?” (330). Likewise, the last chapter’s discussion of communication and travel presents interesting insights that are more loosely connected to the theme of the volume.

The topics grouped under the rather vague heading of Part V, “Christian culture”, include the variety of papyri written and used by Christians, the decision about what constitutes scriptures, hagiography and an overview of the languages used for communicating the Christian message. Part VI, “The intellectual heritage”, is more coherent. Its chapters focus on Christian writings from the Apostolic period to the fifth century in both East and West and sketch the slow creation of an early Christian theology. Part VII contains traditional but comprehensive overviews of early Christian architecture and art, followed by a more conjectural article on the music of early Christians and, somewhat out of place in this section on “artistic heritage”, a chapter on the Protevangelium of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, both indicated as “Imaginative literature”.

Parts VIII and IX both deal with early Christianity’s challenges. VIII discusses the hostile environment in which Christianity developed and the various kinds of popular and intellectual opposition it faced as well as Christianity’s particular reaction to opposition in the form of martyrdom. IX constitutes a highly useful overview of the content, chronology and geographic distribution of Christian models in the first few centuries. It is effectively introduced by a chapter on internal renewal and dissent, which stresses the validity of all alternative models and mainly focusses on the decision-making process that made that one model became “orthodox” and the others “heretical”. Part X, finally, consists of a series of profiles of prominent, mostly male, figures of the early Christian period, including ascetics, martyrs, bishops, the emperors Constantine and Julian, discussed in chronological order.

The ECW’s division in ten parts is very traditional and sometimes rather artificial. The loose connections between the articles in Part V have already been mentioned. In addition, one wonders why topics such as architecture, art or music are not part of “Everyday Christian experience” but of “The artistic heritage”. Then again, the division of a volume of this magnitude will never be pleasing to all.

The major strongpoint of the ECW is the many ways in which it brings to life the social world in which early Christianity developed. For instance, chapter 5 is a fascinating study of Jesus’ Galilean homeland, Galilee’s ecology, social systems, power networks, economy, the social-cultural circles in which Jesus would have moved, and so on. Chapter 8 offers an intriguing examination of the gospels’ various and evolving strategies to appeal to peasants as well as members of the literate elite. Through their attention to continuous interactions and “unorthodox” practices, various chapters also considerably nuance the meaning of “Christian” and “Jew”. By contrast, “pagan” is still all too often used uncritically, in opposition to “Christian”, as when it is said that “a very destructive two-edged sword was being prepared by the pagans for their upcoming unprecedented attack upon the church” (797).

Somewhat disappointing is that the lion’s share of the ECW is still based on literary sources. Some progress is noticeable – e.g., chapter 5 was revised by integrating a lot more archaeology than in the 2000 version; early Christian papyri and epigraphy have been given a separate chapter in the revised edition – but one is stuck with the impression that non-literary evidence remains unexplored. The discussion on epigraphy, for instance, though part of the “Christian realia. Papyrological and epigraphical material” chapter, barely takes up two pages. All forms and expressions of architecture and art have been dealt with in one chapter each. Likewise, although the volume is lavishly illustrated, many of the figures are not engaged with. Thus, a section on the early third-century theologian Hippolytus is illustrated with a (badly lit) photograph of the so-called statue of Hippolytus at the foot of the steps leading to the Vatican Library (Figure 29.1). This statue has a complicated history and was re-identified as Hippolytus only at a later, unknown moment in time and very likely only after the period the volume is concerned with. It functions here only as a “pretty picture”. Likewise, in chapter 32, a discussion of Arius and his theology is accompanied by a picture of the auditorium excavated in Alexandria, which postdates Arius with about two centuries (Figure 32.2). On a side-note, the amphitheatre in Lyon is depicted twice, both in chapter 38 (Figure 38.1) and in chapter 40 (Figure 40.4).

That being said, there is no denying that the ECW is and remains an enormously useful reference work. It is highly accessible to specialist and non-specialist readers, with essays written in an accessible style, rich illustrations, indices of biblical, classical, Jewish references and patristic references as well as a subject index. These indices make it somewhat easier to navigate through its almost 1200 pages of text. Each article is followed by an extensive and up-to-date bibliography, encouraging and facilitating further research.

Authors and titles

Dedication
List of Illustrations
Preface
List of Abbreviations
I THE CONTEXT
1. “The Mediterranean Context of Early Christianity” – Philip F. Esler
2. “Emperors, Armies and Bureaucrats 68-430 CE” – Jill Harries
3. “Greek and Roman Philosophy and Religion” – Luther H. Martin
4. “Jewish Tradition and Culture” – James K. Aitken

II CHRISTIAN ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT
5. “Jesus in His World” – Douglas E. Oakman
6. “Early Jewish Christianity” – Edwin K. Broadhead
7. “Paul and the Development of Gentile Christianity” – Todd Klutz
8. “The Jesus Tradition: The Gospel Writers’ Strategies of Persuasion” – Richard L. Rohrbaugh
9. “The Second and Third Centuries” – Jeffrey S. Siker
10. “From Constantine to Theodosius and Beyond” – Bill Leadbetter
11. “Jewish and Christian Interaction from the First to the Fifth Centuries” – Anders Runesson

III COMMUNITY FORMATION AND MAINTENANCE
12. “Mission and Expansion” – Thomas M. Finn
13. “The Development of Office in the Early Church” – Mark Edwards
14. “Christian Regional Diversity” – David G. K. Taylor
15. “Monasticism “– Columba Stewart OSB

IV EVERYDAY CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE
16. “Reading the New Testament in Roman Britain” – Richard Cleaves
17. “Sex and Sexual Renunciation I” – Teresa M. Shaw
18. “Sex and Sexual Renunciation II: Developments in Research since 2000” – Elizabeth A. Castelli
19. “Women, Children and House Churches” – Mona Tokarek LaFosse
20. “Worship, Practice and Belief” – Maxwell E. Johnson
21. “Ritual and the Rise of the Early Christian Movement” – Risto Uro
22. “Communication and Travel” – Blake Leyerle

V CHRISTIAN CULTURE
23. “Christian Realia: Books, Papyri and Artefacts” – Giovanni Bazzana
24. “Scriptures in Early Christianity” – Outi Lehtipuu and Hanne von Weissenberg
25. “Saints and Hagiography” – Mark Humphries
26. “Translation and Communication across Languages” – Malcolm Choat

VI THE INTELLECTUAL HERITAGE
27. “The Apostolic Fathers” – Carolyn Osiek
28. “The Apologists” – Anders-Christian Jacobsen
29. “Early Theologians” – Gerald Bray
30. “Later Theologians of the Greek East” – Andrew Louth
31. “Later Theologians of the West” – Ivor J. Davidson
32. “Creeds, Councils and Doctrinal Development” – Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski
33. “Biblical Interpretation” – Oskar Skarsaune

VII THE ARTISTIC HERITAGE
34. “Early Christian Architecture: The First Five Centuries” – L. Michael White
35. “Art” – Robin M. Jensen
36. “Music” – John Arthur Smith
37. “Imaginative Literature” – Richard Bauckham

VIII EXTERNAL CHALLENGES
38. “Political Oppression and Martyrdom” – Candida R. Moss
39. “Graeco-Roman Philosophical Opposition” – Michael Bland Simmons
40. “Popular Graeco-Roman Responses to Christianty” – Craig de Vos

IX INTERNAL CHALLENGES
41. “Internal Renewal and Dissent in the Early Christian World” – Sheila E. McGinn
42. “Gnosticism” – Alistair H. B. Logan
43. “Montanism” – Christine Trevett
44. “Donatism” – Jakob Engberg
45. “Arianism” – David Rankin
46. “Manichaeism” – Jason David BeDuhn

X PROFILES
47. “Origen” – Thomas P. Scheck
48. “Tertullian” – Geoffrey D. Dunn
49. “Perpetua and Felicitas” – Shira L. Lander and Ross S. Kraemer
50. “Constantine” – Bill Leadbetter
51. “Antony the Great” – Columba Stewart OSB
52. “Pachomius the Great” – James E. Goehring
53. “Athanasius” – David M. Gwynn
54. “John Chrysostom” – Wendy Mayer and Pauline Allen
55. “Gregory of Nyssa” – Elena Ene D-Vasilescu
56. “Jerome” – Dennis Brown
57. “Ambrose” – Ivor J. Davidson
58. “Augustine” – Carol Harrison
59. “Ephrem the Syrian” – Kathleen E. McVey
60. “Julian the Apostate” – Michael Bland Simmons
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