Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.08.20 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.08.20

Hartmut Leppin, Die frühen Christen: Von den Anfängen bis Konstantin. Historische Bibliothek der Gerda Henkel Stiftung.   München:  C.H. Beck, 2018.  Pp. 560.  ISBN 9783406725104.  €29,95.  

Reviewed by Ulrike Roth, The University of Edinburgh (

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How does one write the history of early Christianity? On 500 pages, in German, and for a wider audience? These are key elements of the response offered by Hartmut Leppin in an enjoyable and edifying recent monograph. Die frühen Christen: Von den Anfängen bis Konstantin is published in a series created by the marriage between the Gerda Henkel Stiftung and the C. H. Beck Verlag (‘Historische Bibliothek’) to bring to a broad readership scholarly discussion of important historical topics by leaders in their fields. Previous volumes in the series have included Christian Marek’s history of Asia Minor in antiquity, Jörg Rüpke’s Pantheon, and Hermann Parzinger’s study of the peoples of Eurasia. Leppin’s contribution exemplifies the immense value of the series, as well as the feasibility of writing in an accessible style without losing scholarly traction.

The book has four main parts. Part I explores how Christians defined themselves vis-à-vis Jews and other non-Christians (whom Leppin calls heathens): ‘Weder Juden noch Heiden?’ (pp. 33-133). Leppin discusses inter alia the development of Christian festivities and celebrations (e.g., Easter, the Eucharist), food taboos and rules, demons and miracles, funerary practices, and Christian meeting spaces. The second part looks at organisational issues, especially regarding internal hierarchies and the recognition of individual authority: ‘Christliche Autoritäten’ (pp. 135-253). Here, Leppin emphasises the rapidly increasing role of bishops, especially vis-à-vis prophets, philosophers and ascetics, as well as the related development of cultic reliquary and cult centres, taking account also of the role of the early Christians’ economic resources behind these developments. The question of how membership in the faith affected one’s daily life—i.e., such diverse aspects as, especially, marriage, sexuality, work, property ownership and wealth—is the focus of Part III: ‘(Nicht) von dieser Welt: Selbstsorge und Nächstenliebe’ (pp. 255-344)—including sections on children and enslaved persons, as well as on the role of humility and penance. The fourth and final part is concerned with the relationship of the early Christians to political power, and to the power of Rome in particular: ‘Bürger zweier Reiche’ (pp. 345-414)—beginning with the challenges for Christians (e.g., vis-à-vis the imperial cult) and ending with the opportunities, especially for social mobility for primarily free male Roman citizens. Throughout all parts, Leppin concentrates on those who became Christ-followers, i.e., on the individual albeit not ‘the people’, as will be seen, and hence on evidence over theory. This focus is underscored by the sole index listing named individuals (besides place names). It is perhaps the greatest strength of this book to bring to the fore—one might even be tempted to say: to life—several of those who have left evidence of their engagement with the Christian faith behind. Leppin’s study offers, in short, a truly human and humane perspective on the actions and thoughts of many early Christians.

This result is no coincidence; nor is it the product of a predilection for anecdotal evidence. Rather, Leppin actively seeks to avoid offering a history, understood as a linear narrative, foregrounding seemingly self-confirmatory patterns and inevitable outcomes. Instead, by concentrating on individual tensions and complexities, he wishes to emphasise the lack of such patterns, and—most of all—the lack of any predetermination and inevitability in what has in effect become one of the greatest religious success stories ever (e.g., on p. 9):

Die Geschichte der Christen, die ich darstelle, folgt keiner inneren Logik und ist nicht durch höhere Kräfte bestimmt, vielmehr beobachte ich Christen bei ihren unterschiedlich erfolgreichen Versuchen, sich in der Welt einzurichten … Es geht um bestimmte Situationen, um Problemlösungen, die sich teils sedimentierten, die sich teils aber nicht durchsetzten. Es ist keine folgenrichtige Entwicklung, sondern ein Tasten und Erproben.

Form equals content: Leppin actively encourages his readers to read across the various parts. To this end, the margins of the pages are dotted with cross-references to show where the reader may best pick up similar issues and evidence elsewhere in the book. As Leppin explains (p. 13):

Da ich keine kontinuierliche Entwicklung zu beschreiben beanspruche und gerade auch Seitenwege in den Blick nehme, ist die Reihenfolge der Kapitel jedoch keineswegs zwingend. Das Ergebnis soll vielmehr auch als Lesebuch dienen: Der Leser und die Leserin sind eingeladen, ihren eigenen Weg zu suchen; dazu sollen die zahlreichen Marginalien beitragen, die auf andere Kapitel verweisen, in denen man weiterlesen kann.

Leppin carefully sensitises his readers towards ambiguities in the textual evidence: he repeatedly notes that a passage merely purports to speak for a particular person (e.g., p. 150: ‘Paulus wird der Satz zugeschrieben …’; p. 152: ‘Was Jesus hier in den Mund gelegt wird …’). Beyond textual exploration, there is some attention to material culture—e.g., funerary evidence, such as Rome’s catacombs, regarding the locational dispersal of Christians (pp. 104-21); or the built Christian meeting spaces, regarding their social organisation and financial resourcing (pp. 122-33); or urban constructional changes in Jerusalem that document Christian activity (pp: 235-53). Multiple sections of society receive attention, including explicitly (especially in Parts II and III) the experiences of men and women, even if gender is not a key analytical tool in this study, and the locution ‘die frühen Christen’ comprises more often than not men rather than women. The broad attention to methodological matters, to different bodies of evidence, and to acute scholarly concerns, gives the thematic narrative a lively feel.

That said, with the focus on literary discourse, we hear little of rural Christianity (cf. pp. 327 and 431) and lower-status groups, while the discussion precisely of women, as that of children, projects a subject-external view—asking. for instance, what children meant to marriage and (potential) parents, rather than exploring Christian childhood as such (pp. 285-93). The (dispersed) discussion of the early Christians’ economic conditions bypasses for all practical purposes the so-called ‘poverty-debate’ and, hence, the tricky question of how we assess the means levels of the early Christians.1 The latter appear (therefore?) regularly as of broadly middling socio-economic status. (‘Poverty-advocates’ are labelled ‘Vertreter sozialromantischer Vorstellungen’; p. 411, with esp. 336, 343, 415 and 435.) The chapter on slavery foregrounds the views of (free) Roman and Christian authors (pp. 293-303); the only sustained discussion of enslaved individuals, some of whom were indeed wealthy features later on in the account of the social elites (pp. 408-10; cf. 372, 427). Leppin laments in turn the poverty of our sources for the non-elites, noting that these were of little interest to our authors: ‘…das waren Gruppen, für die sich die meisten unserer nichtchristlichen Quellenautoren nicht interessierten (und auch die erhaltenen christlichen nur wenig)’ (p. 425, with esp. pp. 263, 293, 297, 327, 426). There is indeed much work ahead still to crack open the surviving literary discourse to glean information about the bulk of the population. But wouldn’t greater attention not least to the sizeable number of inscriptions offering a wealth of information about early Christianity and Christ-followers of diverse means levels and across place, time and language—including women and the enslaved, adults and children—have helped to prevent their historiographic marginalisation?

Another, related quibble,—regarding the role played by the Roman Empire in this book:— it is given pride of place among the political and civic units in which the Christians moved and to which they responded (often explicitly so: e.g., pp. 188, 209, 225, 238, 242-3, 256, 273, 279, 294, 299, 305, 392)—a typical feature in the study of early Christianity.2 To be sure, Leppin explores the relationship between Christians and Jews, notably in Part I; and several of the discussed individuals hailed from and operated in various parts of the ancient Mediterranean (like Paul himself, or the cited North African bishops). But beyond brief mentions of regional differences (e.g., pp. 226-32, 243-4, 247, 307), we hear little about what it meant to be a Christ-follower for instance in the free Greek cities, and more broadly about Greek culture, practices and norms, which would have played a significant role in the day-to-day of many of the early Christians in the eastern Mediterranean, not to speak of Near Eastern influences and contexts; and so forth.3 When other cultures and powers are mentioned, these are typically conceptualised from a Romano-centric perspective; similarly, particular socio-cultural issues are chiefly illustrated from a Roman stance only. How Christian widows (from ‘early on’: ‘schon früh’, without locational specification) negotiated their positions, for instance, is in part explained through their continued control over their property according to Roman law, i.e., ‘aufgrund ihres Besitzes, den sie nach Römischen Recht weitgehend eigenständig verwalten durften’ (pp. 152-3)—thereby side-lining not only the diversity of the contemporary legal culture, but also the varied and often hybrid recourse to multiple legal systems in the early Roman Empire.4 The mention of ancient Persia necessitates then the qualification that ‘das Christentum war nicht allein ein römisches Phänomen’ (p. 169; also p. 410: ‘Christen gab es nicht nur im Römischen Reich … Osrhoëne … Armenien … Georgien …’), while Abgar VIII of Edessa is labelled a ‘Kleinkönig am Rande des Imperiums’ (p. 181). Factually correct as these statements are, they illustrate the conceptual benchmark constituted by Rome in Leppin’s thought, be that conceptualisation expressed in legal, geographical or political terms.5

Naturally, this Romano-centric perspective is essential in Part IV—where it is the explicit focus of the discussion. But the stress on Rome throughout the book actually runs counter to Leppin’s otherwise bold denial of the use of a big historical frame that determines the outcome: the Romano-Christian ‘collaboration’ that Part IV foregrounds appears as the inevitable conclusion to the messy developments that dominate the three preceding parts. This ‘inevitability’ is underpinned by the generous use of textual sources that were composed with a view to presenting Christianity as a natural part of and ally to the Roman Empire, such as Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History.6 Such source problems aside, perhaps this sense of ‘inevitability’ could have been avoided by greater chronological differentiation, so that the first 200 years are not synthesised with the world after Caracalla and ‘universal’ Roman citizenship, and then Constantine? It would have been fascinating to see Leppin go the full way, and to have written without any teleological frame. Even the Roman governor Pliny was not sure how to deal with the Christians (Ep. 10.96-7, cf. pp. 363, 379 and 423): the outcome of such encounters must have been anything but clear on the ground at the time, opening up the possibility to take the approach championed by Leppin when discussing individuals to the next, one may say institutional level.

The press is to be praised for producing a beautiful volume, including 21 illustrations, even if the role of material culture is limited in Leppin’s exposition, as noted. There are only minor typos (e.g., p. 185: ‘Sprach’ for ‘Sprache’; p. 204: ‘Pauls’ for ‘Paulos’ of Samosata; p. 304: ‘de’ for ‘der’; p. 337: ‘wir’ for ‘wird’). The rich bibliography provides much inspiration and direction for further reading. This book, in short, whets the reader’s appetite for more—a testimony to the impressive feat offered by Leppin in selecting, structuring and presenting a mass of seriously complicated, often contradictory and yet highly intriguing evidence of a historical development that is as bewildering as it has been influential in human history, around the globe.

Table of Contents

Einleitung, 7
Prolog: Ein Leichnam kommt der Welt abhanden, 23

I. Weder Juden noch Heiden?, 33
1. Ein ungeheurer Schritt: die Taufe, 33
2. Gemeinsam feiern in einer neuen Zeit, 43
3. Jüdische Tradition und christliche Aneignung, 54
4. Speisen im religiösen Streit, 68
5. Von der Alltäglichkeit der Wunder, 76
6. Feste für alle Bürger und manche Christen, 84
7. Leben unter den Dämonen, 92
8. Zwischen Gemeinde und Familie: Beisetzungen früher Christen, 104
9. Wir haben keine Heiligtümer und Altäre: Orte der Gemeinschaftsbildung, 122

II. Christliche Autoritäten, 135
1.Wer spricht im Namen des Herrn? Charisma und Amt, 135
2. Christinnen und Gemeindeorganisation, 145
3. Späte Prophetie, 158
4. Die wahren Philosophen, 172
5. Konsens und Wahrheit: Der Weg zum Bischof, 186
6. Gefährlicher Glanz: Das Bischofsamt, 196
7. Geld in den Gemeinden, 205
8. Die Körper der Heiligen: Das Aufkommen von Reliquien, 215
9. Das Paradies in der Einöde: Verzicht und Selbstermächtigung, 223
10. Getrennt und doch vernetzt: Zentren früher Christen, 235

III. (Nicht) von dieser Welt: Selbstsorge und Nächstenliebe, 255
1. Neue Geschwister, 255
2. Die Ambivalenz der Ehe, 262
3. Grenzen der Sexualität, 278
4. Zwischen Preisgabe und Respekt: Kinder unter Christen, 285
5. Gleich und doch nicht so gleich: Sklaven und Christen, 293
6. Gottesnot und Macht: Die Buße, 303
7. In Demut durch den Alltag, 311
8. Arbeit im Glauben, 325
9. Reichtum und Fürsorge, 335

IV. Bürger zweier Reiche, 345
1. Ein Imperium ohne Alternative, 345
2. Leben in Bedrängnis, 355
3. Strittiges Sterben: Märtyrer vor Gericht, 365
4. Ausflüchte, Auswege und Argumente in Zeiten der Verfolgung, 380
5. Soldaten im Glauben, 392
6. Vor dem großen Sprung: Christen in den sozialen Eliten, 402

Rückblick und Ausblick, 415

Hinweise zu den Übersetzungen, 445
Danksagungen, 447
Abkürzungsverzeichnis, 449
Anmerkungen, 457
Literatur, 476
Bildnachweis, 504
Personen- und Ortsregister, 505


1.   E.g., B. W. Longenecker, ‘Socio-economic profiling of the first urban Christians’, in T. D. Still and D. G. Horrell (edd.), After the First Urban Christians. The Social-Scientific Study of Pauline Christianity Twenty-Five Years Later (London and New York, 2009), 36-59; S. J. Friesen, ‘Poverty in Pauline studies: beyond the so-called New Consensus’, JSNT 26 (2004), 323-61.
2.   Already in Jesus and Pauline studies: e.g., R. A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis, 2003); (ed.), Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society (Harrisburg, 1997), and Paul and the Roman Imperial Order (New York, 2004).
3.   Cf. p. 403, concerned with Greek cities that were Roman coloniae (and whose populations were therefore in large part endowed with Roman citizenship).
4.   This affected both the eastern and the western Mediterranean, north and south: see now K. Czajkowski and B. Eckhardt, ‘Law, status and agency in the Roman provinces’, Past & Present 241 (2018), 3-31.
5.   Note also the stress on Roman society: e.g., pp. 35, 299, 302, 343, 429, 436.
6.   On Eusebius’ Christian ‘empire-building’ in particular, see now J. Corke-Webster, Eusebius and Empire. Constructing Church and Rome in the Ecclesiastical History (Cambridge, 2019).

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