BMCR 2006.01.02

Early Christian Literature. Christ and Culture in the Second and Third Centuries

, Early Christian literature : Christ and culture in the second and third centuries. Routledge early church monographs. London: Routledge, 2005. xiii, 266 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0415354870 hbk $39.95 (pb).

The object of this book, as the introduction explains, is to show how the early Christians defined their place in the Roman world through literature. The first chapter is a critical inventory of Christian texts to the time of Clement of Alexandria; the second reviews the use of both philosophy and narrative as vehicles for Christian testimony to the unity of God; the third (perhaps the most interesting) discovers that codes of sexual practice differ in different literary media; while the fourth brings to light a similar diversity in writings of this epoch when they address the power of Rome.

In the opening chapter Rhee presents three categories of “propagandistic literature” which illustrate the life and thought of Christians in the second century. First come the apologies, which are undeniably modelled on the rhetorical performances of sophists in the same epoch. Whether their authors, or their pagan mentors, would have had at their disposal all the terms of art that the handbooks of ancient rhetoric have passed down to us it is hard to say; for me at least it is equally hard to see that we learn more from such taxonomies (in the majority of instances) than we learn from the grammatical analysis of a sentence that we already understand. Nevertheless the rhetorical parsing can at least be attempted with some confidence — which is more than we can say of the apocryphal acts, which are not quite imitations of the canonical book, and not quite novels or biographies either unless we use these terms in such a protean manner that they cease to define a genre. Rhee, in proposing to call them “biographical novels” or “novelistic biography” (p. 36) ascribes to them a “creative” use of history. On the other hand, she is ready to believe that half a dozen of the martyr-acts which make up the third class of “propagandistic literature” are food for the historian, though perhaps never without a seasoning of fiction (p. 41). This chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book: concise, fastidious and well-informed, it encompasses a variety of materials and opinions that could easily have been spun into a volume.

The assimilation of pagan to Christian monotheism in chapter 2 appears to me to commit the common error of baptizing the Greeks before hearing their confession. There is scholarly precedent (though no authority in the Greek) for the spelling of Logos with a capital L in Plutarch’s Isis and Osiris; but this will not suffice to prove that Philo the Jew was the heir to any “Middle Platonic” notion of the Logos as “supreme principle”, or that logos in Platonic texts is ever the appellative of a personal creator. Middle Platonism is the latter-day reification of a useful catalogue heading “Middle Platonist”; it is not a school from which an early Christian could have borrowed terms or doctrines. And while it is clear that Christians adopted the vocabulary that philosophers used to express the invisibility, ubiquity and eternity of God, we should not forget that the Platonists themselves admired the lofty exemplification of these properties in the God of the “Jewish” scriptures, and that certain words — the verb ktizein, or “create”, for example — remained the special property of Jewish and Christian writers. Equally characteristic is the assumption that the antiquity of Moses, and of the events that he described, gave Christianity a superior claim to knowledge. Since, however, the adumbration of Christian truth in a primitive Greek source was sure to weigh more with pagan readers than an appeal to barbarian histories, I am not so puzzled as Rhee by the substitution of Orpheus and the Sibyl for the Pentateuch in Athenagoras (p. 66). The Sibyl is quoted by both Justin and Clement as a recipient of the divine inspiration otherwise imparted only to the Hebrew prophets; it is true, as Rhee observes, that Justin and Clement treat the philosophers more charitably than Tatian does, but she has not helped me to find any indication in their writings that the seed of Greek theology was sown by the Spirit rather than by the Israelites whose works they are expressly said to have quarried.

Rhee then follows a multitude in asserting that the world of the early Christians was teeming with divine men (theoi andres) who made good their claim to authority by miracles (pp. 70, 87). As ever, Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius is the chief exhibit, notwithstanding its date and its avowed design of showing that the theios aner is not the worker of miracles but the sage whose mind is a plectrum for the gods. The Life of Apollonius is in fact what the Gospel of Mark is sometimes wrongly supposed to be — a Penelope’s web in which the figure of the thaumaturge is undone again as soon as it is woven, and replaced by the lineaments of the true philosopher. In all the canonical gospels, on the other hand, the miraculous episodes are far more numerous than in any previous biographical narrative that survives entire; nevertheless, as Rhee observes, they were not pressed into service by the apologists since (in contrast to the fulfilment of the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament) they could easily be attributed to chicanery or diabolic action. An exception should be made for exorcism, which, so far as we can ascertain from our sources, never meant in pagan texts (before Philostratus) the expulsion of a superhuman tenant from the body. Some notice should have been taken here of the testimony of Tertullian and others that this feat was often performed before spectators and was all the more compelling because the demon could be made to confess the identity of his conqueror. What Rhee does demonstrate, with no small subtlety and learning, is that thaumaturgy — regular, showy and frequently vindictive — became an indispensable tool of mission in those works that professed to recount the acts of particular apostles. The canonical Acts, having prophesied the death of Paul, conclude not with his martyrdom but with an older prophet’s curse on the incredulity of the Jews; in the apocryphal acts, however, it is the nations who are converted by the human ambassador’s mediation of the power of God. And so too it is in the records of historical martyrdom: demons are exposed, tormentors baffled, the populace dismayed. The polymorphic Christ of the apocryphal acts is a bridge between earth and heaven, as Rhee perceives; it is therefore all the more surprising that she should find docetism in the Acts of Thomas when it says that the Christ “whose body we have handled” also possesses a “heavenly form” which is invisible (p. 85). Docetists state that the flesh of Christ was unreal; that his flesh was at once the sign and the cipher of his invisible Godhead is the doctrine of Paul and the premiss of every oecumenical creed.

Chapter 3 contrasts the encratitic repudiation of sexual intercourse with the catholic position that it is good to marry, but only with the aim of producing children. One she seems inclined to label Cynic, the other Stoic, though she is aware that both are anticipated in Paul’s advice to the gentile church of Corinth. The analogies were drawn by Christian writers of the Roman era, though neither is entirely just: the encratites did not set every custom at defiance as the Cynics were alleged to do, and even ascetics of the catholic fold did not aspire to the impassibility of the Stoic “wise man”. Devotion to God, not the stupefaction of appetite, was always the strongest motive for Christian celibacy; for those who could tolerate intercourse monogamy was the rule that Christ assumed, while procreation is almost a duty in the Old Testament. The two forms of Christian abstinence, then, can be reconciled with Judaism and sanctioned by the precepts of philosophers, but could not be derived from either without the mediation of a new theology. The encratitic principle is exemplified to a fault in the apocryphal acts, where one of the principal tasks of an apostle is to separate rich women from their husbands; the woman herself, as Rhee shows here in detail, is not merely the spoil of a fight between two men but is enabled to overcome both social thraldom and natural weakness. This, to the ancient mind, is as much as to say that she becomes a man, and Rhee takes up Renan’s point that the commemoration of such female martyrs as Blandina and Perpetua made the church an arena of virtue for both sexes. Fortitude in women was a trait that Greeks and Romans had already learned to applaud in the examples of Polyxena, Lucretia and Alcestis; celibacy, on the other hand, was commended only in goddesses and their votaries, though the unmarried girl was required to sustain a purity which was not enjoined upon the unmarried male. Rhee alludes to novels in which the man and his maid observe a “heroic chastity” (p. 132); but I fear that it is only in the work of Heliodorus, sometimes thought to have been a bishop, that the lovers are virgins by their own desire.

The final chapter, on loyalty to the empire, begins with the observation that the cult of Christ could not fail to imperil the pretensions of a sovereign like Domitian, who affected the title Lord and God, and could not be reconciled under any government with the custom of sacrifice to the emperor’s genius. Rhee’s term “accommodation” is too bland to describe Tertullian’s satirical reflections on the avarice and brutality that Rome disguises under the name of patriotism, ascribing to martial virtue the ascendancy that she owes in fact to the hidden plan of God. But certainly it is true that all the apologists profess loyalty to Rome as the instrument of god on earth, whereas in the apocryphal acts the work of providence is seen in the discomfiture of the autocrat, the renunciation of patronage and wealth among his satellites, the fall of images, both royal and cultic, and the derisive mimicry of religious customs. In martyr-acts, by contrast, the hero goes to death foreseeing his vindication and disdaining the prayers of a judge who in any other court would be toying with the pleas of the defendant. Here, as elsewhere, the author proves her case that Christian literature, whatever it took in content, form and idiom from the world that it apostrophized, adopted the tools of antiquity as a duelist adopts his challenger’s weapons; the protocols which governed speech and penmanship in the age of the Second Sophistic seemed to Christians no more binding, no less open to impeachment or revision, than the norms of civic life.