BMCR 2007.06.11

Early Christianity

, Early Christianity. Classical foundations. New York: Routledge, 2006. 1 online resource (xii, 276 pages).. ISBN 0203087607 $25.95.

The book by Mark Humphries, entitled Early Christianity, is the fourth volume in the Classical Foundations series, which seeks to provide an introductory window into classical history for beginning students. Following the format of the series, Humphries approaches the subject of Christianity’s origins with an emphasis on exploring important issues, constructing an appropriate methodology, as well as providing an intelligent use of the sources, both primary and secondary. Furthermore, in constructing a framework that coincides with the overall series emphasis, the author attempts to delve into broader issues such as the nature of a study of Christianity. Because his topic is a part of Roman history, he wrestles with the problems of bias in various theological approaches to the Early Church and defends the significance of this study within modern academic research. Ultimately, the expressed goal is to provide an introduction for university students studying the early Christian Church or the Greco-Roman world, yet also to be accessible to the general student.

The author immediately introduces his book by establishing his parameters. He indicates up front that the book will not be a narrative of Christian history cluttered with scholarly apparatuses. He clearly states that some issues are intentionally left open to promote further research and discussion. With these boundaries in mind, he develops the core of the book around three primary topics: Christianity’s place within the cultural milieu of the Greco-Roman world, the struggle of maintaining orthodoxy and unity as the movement expanded, and finally, an exploration of the relations of the early Christians with the Roman government. Yet, before broaching these primary subjects, the author feels compelled to delve into some important secondary issues, such as the relevancy of the topic, a history of how the topic has been studied in the past, as well as an introduction to the sources utilized in the work.

The first three chapters form what amounts to a large aside in an effort to bring a reader (who may be weighted with his own bias) to the author’s starting point. Thus, Humphries begins with the relevancy issue: Why should Christianity, a religious subject, be included in a historical series and not delegated to the realm of superstition or philosophy. As a Classical Historian, Humphries recognizes that a study of the origins of Christianity is an integral part of Roman history. Indeed, Christians participated in the greater religious and cultural environment of the Mediterranean world. To detractors who want to remove Christianity as a valid scholarly pursuit, Humphries argues that religion is a vital phenomenon in Western society, regardless of one’s personal theological worldview. Indeed, the resurgence of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism demonstrates that the subject is not defunct. Yet, even beyond modern concerns, the author recognizes that the study of religion, any religion, can create understanding of how societies think, even ancient ones. In fact, he comments that the study of ancient religion has overturned the claim by some Christians that paganism was an empty, formal system later eclipsed by a more vital Christianity. The study of religion, in this case, Christianity, helps unlock a larger understanding of a society.

Once the author establishes the relevancy of Christianity for study, he tackles the problem of various interpretive biases through a short survey of how Church History has been treated through the centuries. He explores efforts at creating official ecclesiastical histories, starting with Eusebius. This supporter of Constantine painted a portrait of God’s plan to utilize the Roman Empire in helping to bring about the triumph of Christianity against its Jewish and heretical foes. This work, of course, provided a model for later Church Historians to follow. Despite the calamity of the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in Late Antiquity and Augustine’s division between a spiritual and civic City of God, popular theology continued to posit a close connection with the Roman Empire. Now, however, Christian historians of the day portrayed God as bringing punishment for the persecutions of the past, which facilitated an interest in martyrs and relics. The end result was that the Medieval Church scholars searched for an earlier, “purer” church to serve as a model. Thus, the Church Fathers were established as important “sources” to be studied for theological orthodoxy. With the danger of heresy (i.e. the ideas and attitude of anyone who differed from established practice), a continual search for successions of bishops became a major focus in various regions.

With the Renaissance, a new scholarship prompted a more academic approach to exploring early Christianity. Yet, while some developed a radical criticism, the search for that “purer” Church continued. This latter momentum found ready expression after the Reformation, as Protestants challenged the Catholic view of Church History and sought its own version of what happened within the New Testament and subsequent events. The Catholic hierarchy responded to the challenge and utilized early documents to prove the validity of its traditional links to the past. While Protestants and Catholics poured their energy into disparaging their opponents, the scientific revolution brought about a further defining of scholarship and the emergence of history as a science. Especially during the 17th and 18th centuries, Christianity also became an academic field as opposed to the realm of ethics and morality. Humphries concludes his survey with the emergence of the critical studies of the 19th and 20th centuries. Harnack’s textual criticism and the emergence of archaeology prompted a historical quest to place the Christian faith firmly in its historical milieu. The study of the Early Church is no longer about finding the “true” church, but an effort to understand the early Christian world.

After this lengthy survey, Humphries explores the available sources and discusses some of the issues involved. For example, the Gospels of the New Testament were prompted by theological, not historical concerns. The writings of the Patristic Fathers are valuable for understanding how the early church thought, but once again were written to serve as commentaries and apologies against detractors and so-called heretics. Yet, he also emphasizes the Jewish and Pagan sources, which presented their own world view. The author uses these valuable sources as windows into the cultural environment in which Christianity emerged. Yet, along with the written sources, the author stresses that the material remains are an important source for understanding what took place behind the texts. Iconography, frescoes, burials, and even the remains of churches can provide important insights as to how Christians expressed their faith beyond the documents. Humphries concludes with some valuable cautions that these sources are varied (even the Fathers, such as Tertullian, changed their minds and Origen later found himself rejected by the Church), and that even modern scholars have an interpretive bias as they study the early texts.

The first three chapters serve, almost, as a second larger introduction, yet by Chapter Four, Humphries is ready to expound on the core of the work. In the following three chapters, the author addresses issues, comments on important personalities and sources, and then presents a “Case Study” to show how the sources can be used to examine the history of events. First, he focuses on the origins and early spread of Christianity. He argues that the quest for the Jewish background to Christianity is not a search for a monolithic set of Jewish concepts that allowed the Early Church to spring forth like Athena from Zeus. Instead he emphasizes the diversity of Jewish society and thought, providing a backdrop in which Christianity developed. He also challenges the assumption that the spread of the Christian message was propagated according to an organized mission plan, and he argues instead that it emerges as a process that grew in leaps and bounds. Many times, the message followed the commercial routes, at other times it appeared in remote regions at an early stage. People converted for diverse reasons, from the sympathetic “God Fearers” in the synagogues to philosophers in search of a new wisdom. Some converts did not remain Christian, but reverted to paganism, or moved on to a new “philosophy.” The case study is concerned with the mission work of Paul. The author utilizes inscriptions to present a “historical framework” used in conjunction with the Book of Acts and the Pauline epistles to demonstrate the process of reconstructing how and when Paul spread his message.

The next core issue addresses how the early Christian Church struggled for the unity of a “catholic” church in the face of a rapidly decentralizing movement. Various local practices sometimes conflicted, such as the practice and timing of Easter. Diverse interpretations of the Gospel message emerged as elements from philosophy, paganism, and other Near Eastern religious ideas converged. Gnosticism, Docetism, Arianism, and the conflicts with the Marcionites and Montanists surfaced as rivals to orthodoxy. Writers such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, and Tertullian became those theologians who expressed the nature of orthodoxy, which was in turn enforced by the close civic ties with the Constantinian organization. The case study for this section examines the Nag Hammadi texts and the diverse expressions of Gnosticism. One advantage of having these texts is that one can compare them with the comments from the heresiologists such as Irenaeus. Humphries utilizes the information to present the era as one of dynamic thought and development as opposed to two monolithic forces (Orthodoxy and Gnosticism) squaring off for victory. He even takes a moment to disparage popular conspiracy theories, such as the Da Vinci Code. He shows how Christianity was a diverse movement with a variety of efforts to interpret the Jesus Tradition.

Lastly, Humphries discusses the relationships between the early Christian Church and the Roman Imperial government. Accounts of persecution are explored to put them in the context of the judicial administration. Historical accounts outside of Christianity help create a balanced picture against one that imagines the machinations of a Roman government bent on exterminating Christianity. Instead, persecutions tended to be local. This conclusion fosters an understanding of how Christians alienated themselves from traditional Roman lifestyles and religious values. Accusations of atheism, cannibalism, and incest were common because of the belief in Monotheism, misunderstandings about the Lord’s Supper, and the commands to love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. The Roman citizens also viewed asceticism as undermining Roman values. Christian attitudes toward the empire seem to have been two-fold. On the one hand, some writers disparaged Roman society, yet many presented apologies for Christianity, attempting to present this religion as one that supports civic order and maintains the ideas of model citizens. These efforts eventually paid off as the new religion gained some respectability and then official sanction under Constantine. The case study presented for this section involves the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan. Humphries is struck by the legal terminology and the Imperial insistence on legal equity; thus anonymous accusations were to be ignored and a quest for Christians was not to take place. If some were accused, they had to be punished only if they refused to offer sacrifice to the Emperor. The author goes on to explore the political and social context of Pliny in Bithynia and Pontus and emphasizes the social diversity the new religious force faced in establishing a public voice.

The final chapter is a valuable reference guide to various works that can provide students of the subject a means to explore the issues raised in the book on a deeper level. This is an extremely valuable chapter in that it lists reference works, primary and secondary sources, journals, and then specific bibliographies for each of the chapters. Any student coming to the subject will find valuable resources to help get a grasp of the issues involved.

Overall, the strengths of this book are threefold. First, the readability of the author’s writing style makes this an ideal text for undergraduate students. Not only does it serve as an introduction to a myriad of issues about Christianity’s origins, but it can be utilized as a resource guide because of its large bibliographical sections. The student is not bogged down in excessive details, nor drawn into scholarly quibbling over secondary issues. If one is looking for an in depth analysis, then this book is not going to provide satisfaction. The work is just what the author purports it to be: an introduction to issues, sources, and methodology relating to Early Christianity for beginning students.

Second, the author sets a balanced tone. While admitting to a nonreligious background, the author does not force his own bias upon the reader. He has no “axe to grind.” Not only does he recognize the controversial nature of his subject, but he communicates sensitivity to the reader’s potential biases. Yet, at the same time, he does not water down his commitment to a historical understanding of Christianity within the context of the Roman Mediterranean world. He communicates the evidence and logically ties the various textual (both Christian and secular) sources with archaeological remains. This is a work that could be used profitably even in conservative religious circles.

Third, the author does not follow a traditional narrative of early Christianity, which usually creates a story of a straightforward leap from Jesus to Constantine, and the triumph of orthodoxy. Instead, he demonstrates that the growth of the Early Christian Church was a development within a multiform cultural milieu. Even within Christian circles, there existed a struggle of various traditions and interpretations that evolved into what has been defined as “orthodoxy.” Christianity in the fourth century, as it is today, was a many-sided religion involved in an ongoing effort to define itself and its relationship with society.

Perhaps, one flaw should be highlighted. For a book about the origins of Christianity, very little is spent on a discussion of Jesus himself. The author presents an excellent discussion of the problem of the historicity of the Gospels themselves, such as issues of authorship and dating, and correctly recognizes that these are not strictly “historical,” but theological documents. Later, he seeks to explore a context for the historical Jesus by alluding to possible social and political revolutionaries of the first century. Messianic pretenders are mentioned and then he quickly moves into a discussion of Judaism vs. Christianity. The focus rapidly changes to Paul, who becomes a case study for the context of the spread of Christianity. No references to the Quest for the Historical Jesus are found, and one cannot help but believe that such a topic deserved a little more mention. Yet, despite this gap, Humphries’ book should be readily utilized for use in any introductory course on the Greco-Roman world or Early Christianity.