BMCR 2007.09.02

The Early Christian Book

, , The Early Christian Book. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2007. xi, 314; pls. 28. $39.95.

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

The topic of intensified and transformed bookishness in early Christianity, as well as in formative Judaism and Late Antiquity generally, has understandably caught the imagination of scholars who are themselves working in an age of media transformation.1 The volume of studies edited by William Klingshirn and Linda Safran took its beginning from a conference held at the Catholic University of America in 2002. The product, however, is considerably more integrated than most conference collections: there is more evidence than usual that the initial participants shared an understanding of the sweeping theme and that the process of revision and editing brought the separate essays into frequently explicit reference to each other. Most contributors are acknowledged experts in early Christianity, formative Judaism and Late Antiquity; others are more junior scholars writing about what they know best. The contributions are arranged harmlessly, but unnecessarily, into six thematic pairs. A vestige, presumably, of the original conference organization is that the essays vary sharply in length, so that some of the shorter pieces left this reader wanting more.

As Philip Rousseau’s introduction notes, the articles also vary considerably in scope, from the highly specific to the quite breathtaking. At the breathtaking end of the spectrum must surely be Gillian Clark’s wonderful “City of Books: Augustine and the World as Text,” which actually manages to deliver on what its title suggests, though there are other essays comparably ambitious (Boyarin, Vessey). The more specific end of the spectrum might be marked by Chrysi Kotsifou’s helpful “Books and Book Production in the Monastic Communities of Byzantine Egypt,” though here too, there are rivals, mostly centred on a single well-chosen text (Burris, Conybeare). In between are essays which range, in Rousseau’s phrase, “From Binding to Burning,” via Looking, Judging, Engendering, and even Reading. Despite variation in magnitude and focus, the essays here are all remarkable for quality and all together make a highly differentiated, but coherent whole, marvelously linking the fleshly concreteness of the leather-bound codex with the dreamy ideal of a transcendental, definitive text. The titles of the individual studies are all as good an indication of their contents and tone as any reviewer’s brief summary could be.

A strength of this close-knit group work is that the contributions all point away from restricting “the early Christian book” to the books and texts of the emerging biblical canon and its receptions. “The Early Christian Book” is not the Bible, which, of course, rarely appeared as an ideal or physical object before print and paper. This whole volume of studies points its readers toward an appreciation of the book in late antiquity, by no means confined to Christian textuality, still less to specifically biblical texts, yet still clearly marked by the Christian development. The discussions of Talmudic (Boyarin) and Roman legal (Humfress) codification gave substance to the many passing references to the Late Antique Book’s irreducibility to a Christian reflex. Gillian Clark puts this most explicitly in the name of the whole collection:

…is all this bookishness distinctively Augustinian, or distinctively Christian? The papers in this collection strongly suggest that it is not: rather, bookishness is a late antique characteristic. Christian holy books were adorned and handled with reverence, and when Mani launched a new religious movement, he produced books, beautifully crafted objects that were repositories of wisdom to be handled only by the elect. (133)

. . . But there remains one distinctive factor in early Christian preoccupation with the book, and Augustine is the ideal illustration. Christians has a book, and it was someone’s job to explain that book to anyone who would come and listen. (137)

Comparable articles on, indeed, the Manichaean book or the Neo-Platonic book might have made this collection even more useful, but as it is this book as a whole will be important and pleasant reading for anyone seriously interested in Late Antiquity, while individual articles will be useful teaching resources.


Philip Rousseau, Introduction: From Binding to Burning 1-9

I. Making the Book

John Lowden, The Word Made Visible: The Exterior of the Early Christian Book as Visual Argument 13-47

Chrysi Kotsifou, Books and Book Production in the Monastic Communities of Byzantine Egypt 54-66

II. Constructing Texts

Daniel Boyarin, Talmud and “Fathers of the Church”: Theologies and the Making of Books 61-85

Catherine Burris, The Syriac Book of Women : Text and Meta-Text 86-98

III. Passages and Places

Catherine M. Chin, Through the Looking Glass Darkly: Jerome Inside the Book 101-116

Gillian Clark, City of Books: Augustine and the World as Text 117-138

IV. Ceremony and the Law

Caroline Humfress, Judging By the Book: Christian Codices and Late Antique Legal Culture 141-158

Daniel Sarefield, The Symbolics of Bookburning: The Establishment of a Christian Ritual of Persecution 159-173

V. Texts and the Body

Kim Haines-Eitzen, Engendering Palimpsests: Reading the Textual Tradition of the Acts of Paul and Thecla 177-193

Claudia Rapp, Holy Texts, Holy Men and Holy Scribes: Aspects of Scriptural Holiness in Late Antiquity 194-222

VI. Theory and the Book

Catherine Conybeare, Sanctum, lector, percense volumen: Snakes, Readers, and the Whole Text in Prudentius’s Hamartigenia 225-240

Mark Vessey, Theory, or the Dream of the Book (Mallarm√©’ to Blanchot) 214-273.


1. Note, for example, Hurtado, Larry W. The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006); Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams, Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2006); Megan Hale Williams, The Monk and the Book: Jerome and the Making of Christian Scholarship (University of Chicago Press, 2006).