BMCR 2007.08.08

Rhetoric and Reality in Early Christianities. Studies in Christianity and Judaism 16.

, , Rhetoric and reality in early Christianities. Studies in Christianity and Judaism = Études sur le christianisme et le judaïsme ; 16. Waterloo, Ontario: Published for the Canadian Corp. for Studies in Religion/Corporation canadienne des Sciences religieuses by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xi, 257 pages).. ISBN 1423743024. $59.95.

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

Most of the essays collected in this volume had their origin in the 2000 Congress of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. The book’s stated goal is “to explore the rhetoricality of early Christian discourses and practices around the overarching question of how to account in cogently explanatory terms for the persuasions of and to early Christian groups, ideologies, and practices” (ix).

After a short Preface and a list of contributors, the book consists of nine chapters, each of which is followed by a section of endnotes and a bibliography for that chapter. I found this feature useful because the examples used to explore modes of persuasion in their cultural contexts vary significantly from essay to essay. The final pages contain an index for the volume as a whole.

The first essay by Willi Braun, the volume’s editor, functions as the introduction for the volume as a whole. The essay can be divided into three parts. The first is an argument for the need to move away from an exclusively text-oriented understanding of the rhetorical study of early Christian literature with its tendency to pry texts from their contexts. The second provides an alternative approach, which would “ambiguate the object defined as ‘rhetoric’ that is (at least tacitly) interlinked with, even restrictively posed in terms of, a logographic formalism of the classical (Aristotelian) ars rhetorica” (4) and allow for consideration of how persuasion works within particular social and cultural contexts. Braun and the other contributors of the volume assume a broad definition of rhetoric—the preferred term is, in fact, rhetoricality (10). The third and final part of this essay briefly describes each of the following contributions.

In his contribution William E. Arnal explores the attitude toward language in the Gospel of Thomas, which he understands as a first century C.E. text. Based on the premise that “we should expect to find a close correspondence between a given text’s social location and attitude, on the one hand, and its doctrine of, and use of, and approach to language on the other” (27), Arnal argues that the Gospel of Thomas assumes the possibility of a single meaning, which the readers are charged to discover despite the fact that it is not obvious or self evident. Arnal also argues that the central view of language in the Gospel of Thomas can be characterized as “anti-taxonomic” in its largely consistent upending of privileged categories, such as hidden/manifest, inner/outer, dead/living. Nonetheless, the use of some of these terms in the Gospel of Thomas is inconsistent, as poverty is bad in Sayings 3 and 29, but good in Saying 54. Laurence Broadhurst’s essay weighs into a debate regarding the degree to which the anti-Judaism of Melito of Sardis’ Peri Pascha reflects actual conflicts between Judaism and Christianity in Asia Minor or not. He challenges the view of Miriam S. Taylor1 that “Israel” in the Peri Pascha does not represent Jews in Melito’s time but is used figuratively as part of an argument for Christian supersession. To make the case that the image of Judaism in the text “must be reflective somehow of the reality” (55), Broadhurst turns to what is the central, and I think quite valuable contribution of his essay, that of placing the Peri Pascha in the context of the literary context of the Second Sophistic, which is convincingly demonstrated.

In the next essay Todd Penner discusses the genre of the Acts of the Apostles in the light of the ongoing attempt of New Testament scholars to determine which parts of Acts are to be considered historical. The account of the Hellenists in Acts 6:1-8:3, in particular, has been invested with historical value by interpreters because the Hellenists can represent the first steps toward a break from Judaism. Penner also notes that in all of the discussions regarding which parts of Acts are more historical than others, very little attention has been paid “to the basic issue of what constitutes historia for the writer of Acts (80). Penner suggests that Acts be understood as historia and therefore be evaluated according the expectations of history-writing in Roman world.

Margaret Y. MacDonald explores the apparent contradiction in Colossians, which on the one hand contains an instance of the so-called “household code” that limits the role of women (3:18-4:1), but on the other contains a reference to Nympha, who is clearly the head of a household (4:15). MacDonald suggests that “the code may be less about applying new restrictions to a particular group such as wives or slaves and more about general community orientation and identity, and the face one presents to the world outside” (107).

In the following essay John Kitchen looks at the language of redemption and the institution of slavery in early medieval writings. Building on the work of Orlando Patterson2 Kitchen finds two poles in Pauline language on salvation and slavery: one has “conservative” spiritual and social implications in which redemption is understood as enslavement to Christ, while the other has more “liberating” social implications. After the time of Constantine, Patterson has argued, the “conservative” view took hold and was the dominant understanding through the medieval period, allowing the church to hold slaves. Kitchen argues, however, that the more “liberating” view can be found such texts as Gregory of Tours’ Life of Portianus and Sulpicius Severus’ Life of Saint Martin.

Theodore S. De Bruyn then looks at the relationship between lament rituals and the philosophical consolation tradition in late antique Christianity, suggesting that among “the élite the rhetoric of consolation displaced—or aimed to displace—the ritual of lament as an expression of identity and community in the face of death” (162). Relying on Roy A. Rappaport’s theory of ritual,3 De Bruyn argues that the discourse of consolation achieves a very similar effect to that of rituals of lament. In the end, however, lament rituals were not displaced, in part because they gave participants—predominantly women—a central place in the ritual and an opportunity for “truth telling” (175).

Luther H. Martin uses cognitive psychology to examine the way in which participants would have experienced the cult of Mithras. He argues that the inability of scholars to reconstruct a stable narrative or myth is likely the result of there having been no such widespread myth in the first place. Relying on the work of Harvey Whitehouse, Martin argues that unlike Christianity, which was transmitted in a “doctrinal mode of religiosity,” Mithraism existed and spread in an “imagistic mode of religiosity,” which employs “a diversity of precepts and practices that are based on the local exegesis associated with small-scale, face-to-face groups and that are transmitted episodically, through infrequently performed rituals” (189). At the heart of participants’ experience were emotionally-charged initiatory rites that served to define group identity in particular ways (192).

In the final essay in the volume, Chad Kile takes aim at definitions of Christianity that focus on doctrine and understand the “process of (effective) Christianization” as the “transmission of doctrinal material through persuasion at the level of ideas, concepts, and creeds” (221). Drawing on a range of scholars that include Rodney Stark, Burton Mack, Bruce Lincoln and Harvey Whitehouse, Kile argues for the need to view Christianization as a process of social formation in which persuasion is less the product of ideologies and concepts than by how coalitions are formed and sustained.

The collection as a whole is a fine and valuable contribution to the study of early Christianity. As one might expect, there is some unevenness from essay to essay, given the broad chronological scope and differences of methodological approaches. Nonetheless, all of the essays are connected by similar, or at least compatible, interests and questions. This volume will be interest mostly to specialists in the study of early Christianity and rhetoric generally, as well as those interested in the specific texts used as examples in the essays that make up this volume.


1. Willi Braun, “Rhetoric, Rhetoricality, and Discourse Performances”

2. William E. Arnal, “The Rhetoric of Social Construction: Language and Society in the Gospel of Thomas”

3. Laurence Broadhurst, “Melito of Sardis, the Second Sophistic, and ‘Israel'”

4. Todd Penner, “Early Christian Heroes and Lukan Narrative: Stephen and the Hellenists in Ancient Historiographical Perspective”

5. Margaret Y. MacDonald “Can Nympha Rule This House? The Rhetoric of Domesticity in Colossians”

6. John Kitchen, “‘Raised from the Dung’: Hagiography, Liberation, and the Social Subversiveness of Early Medieval Christianity”

7. Theodore S. de Bruyn, “Philosophical Counsel versus Customary Lament in Fourth-Century Christian Responses to Death”

8. Luther H. Martin, “Performativity, Narrative, and Cognition: ‘Demythologizing’ the Roman Cult of Mithras”

9. Chad Kile, “Feeling Persuaded: Christianization as Social Formation”.


1. Miriam S. Taylor, Anti-Judaism and Early Christianity: A Critique of the Scholarly Consensus. Studia Post-Biblica, 46. Leiden: Brill, 1995.

2. Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

3. Roy A. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.