BMCR 2021.03.59

The rise of the early Christian intellectual

, , The rise of the early Christian intellectual. Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte, 139. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. xii, 272. ISBN 9783110607550 $99.99.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Originally presented at a 2016 seminar at the Australian Catholic University in Rome, the nine essays collected here explore various aspects of early Christian intellectual activity. The main chronological focus is on what the editors call a ‘long second century’ stretching from the end of the first to the late third centuries, with the final paper dealing with Eusebius of Caesarea (2). Together, these chapters challenge notions concerning what constitutes an intellectual in early Christianity.

A brief preface and introduction re-examine the term ‘intellectual’ in its complexity as a designation applicable to pre-modern societies. Christoph Markschies reminds us of various modern assumptions inherent in the use of ‘intellectual’ as understood by Max Weber, who first used the word in a positive sense to describe a particular role and social class. Markschies holds that one may use inescapable modern terminology such as ‘intellectual’ in an early Christian context, provided the problems and power of such language are recognised in their proper perspective (vii-xii).

Likewise, Ayres and Ward acknowledge in their introduction that ‘the term [intellectual] cannot be used without recognition of its complexity and of the complex ways in which it has been used’ (1). Additionally, consideration of ‘the rise of the early Christian intellectual’ must take account of both the ancient intellectual milieu and Christianity’s own distinctive features (2). Such re-evaluation of what it meant to be an intellectual in the early church begins provocatively with three respective chapters by Tobias Nicklas, Stephen Carlson, and Matthew Crawford.

Nicklas argues for viewing at least some authors of apocalyptic works—particularly the book of Revelation—as intellectuals who engaged in serious, rational, and structured reflection. Carlson examines the use of the phrase ‘living and lasting voice’ by Papias of Hierapolis, contending against scholarly critique of this early second-century bishop as anti-intellectual. According to Carlson, Papias’ self-presentation as properly instructed in the faith and a reliable interpreter of Scripture demonstrates an attitude consonant with duly trained Graeco-Roman intellectuals (44). The chapter by Crawford compares the polemical approaches of Tatian and Celsus toward their respective pagan and Christian opponents in the late second century. While Crawford acknowledges the two writers probably did not write directly against one another, he argues that both worked from common intellectual assumptions regarding a primeval wisdom from which their opponents had departed as the result of deception and gullibility.

The next three chapters bring us into the early third century, with particular focus on Clement of Alexandria. Matyáš Havrda examines themes of independent thinking in medical and early Christian writings. After describing the concerns of Greek and Roman writers (especially Galen) with intellectual independence, Havrda contends that at least some early Christian thinkers from Paul to Origen—spending the most time on Clement of Alexandria—were just as preoccupied by the importance of such autonomous reflection. Benjamin Edsall shows how Clement gave the established catechumenate in Alexandria a pedagogical approach encompassing the Christian life from conversion to mystical union in order to integrate neophyte believers into a worshiping community. G. Reydams-Schills argues in favour of interactions by Clement with Platonist and Stoic ideas to explain the biblical concepts of God-likeness and loving one’s neighbour.

Three remaining chapters in this work consider issues of intellectual authority and interpretation, spanning the chronological scope of the volume. The chapter contributed by Lewis Ayres reassesses the ‘rule of truth’ in the writings of Irenaeus (accompanied by comparison with Clement of Alexandria) as providing a theological grammar for intellectual polemic against the Gnostics. Azzan Yadin-Israel places the ‘rise of the early Christian intellectual’ within the context of Jewish, Christian, and pagan concepts of authority in a brief but well-conceived survey. The emergence of Christian intellectual activity, according to Yadin-Israel, is accompanied by a parallel decline in forms of authority described here as ‘prophetic-revelatory’ and ‘oral-traditional’ (165). Lastly, Francesca Schironi compares interpretive methods by Eusebius of Caesarea and Aristarchus of Samothrace of their respective ‘sacred texts’: the Scriptures for Eusebius and Homer’s epics for Aristarchus. Schironi suggests by such a comparison that early Christian intellectuals not only adopted but also surpassed the philological and exegetical achievements of ancient Alexandrian scholarship.

As the editors observe, ‘no unified view’ of the development of early Christian intellectual activity emerges in these papers (4). Rather, each chapter shows a distinct approach and emphasis. Yet, at the same time, an implicit discussion between authors can be traced throughout the volume. For example, Yadin-Israel and Nicklas approach the intellectual status of prophecy and revelation from opposing points of view. Nicklas, as noted above, argues in its favour. However, Yadin-Israel holds the intellectual and revelatory ‘in tension, and perhaps [as] incompatible’—even referring to the latter as ‘non-intellectual’ (165-167). Havrda and Edsall each emphasise Clement of Alexandria’s pairing of faith and knowledge (92-94, 119-126). Such indirect conversations running throughout the volume enable it to cohere as a unit, even as perspectives and conclusions differ.

Taken both individually and as a whole, these chapters contribute refreshing perspectives on intellectual status and intellectual activity within a context of religious devotion in the ancient world. Nicklas’ paper, re-defining the author of Revelation as at least as much an intellectual as a prophetic visionary, stands out as the most original and thought-provoking in this volume. The chapter by Havrda likewise distinguishes itself in its engagement of early Christian and ancient medical texts on themes of intellectual autonomy. Yadin-Israel’s article represents a particularly thought-provoking and helpful account of shifts in the intellectual dynamics of early Christianity. Additionally, each essay in this volume demonstrates the value that early Christian intellectuals discerned in various aspects of their cognitive environment in order to communicate a specific religious message. In other words, as observed by Ayres and Ward, ‘early Christian intellectuals seem to have felt empowered both to engage ancient learning, and yet to reject its pretentions when necessary’ (2).

These essays join a number of recent studies involving early Christian intellectual development in relation to such activity among Jews and pagans in the Graeco-Roman world. G.W. Bowersock discusses perspectives on the imperial cult by educated pagan elites in an article that could be read in conjunction with Nicklas’ chapter on Revelation.[1] Maijastina Kahlos examines pagan and Christian methods of allegorically interpreting sacred texts (cf. Schironi’s chapter similarly comparing Eusebius of Caesarea and Aristarchus of Samothrace).[2] Guy Stroumsa analyses the paradoxical attitudes toward books and education among Christian monks in late antiquity, while Carlson’s paper investigates what can be understood about Papias’ mentality regarding such written texts.[3] The present volume as a whole might be considered complementary to a recent work edited by Sean Adams, where the focus is on pagan and Jewish intellectual culture.[4]Book-length studies include recent works by Kendra Eshleman and Jared Secord. Eshleman focuses on sociological aspects of pagan, Jewish, and Christian intellectual life, while Secord re-assesses several early Christian authors in light of their respective pagan contemporaries.[5]

The value of the present volume in light of these other studies is that each chapter offers a concentrated analysis of early Christian intellectual activity in the ‘long second century’, showing how the ancient authors explored here engaged pagan and Jewish paradigms from the perspective of sharing in these traditions to some extent. Overall, the individual chapters in this edited volume hold together well with each providing intriguing insights into the nature and growth of intellectual activity by early Christians in relation to their surrounding culture.

Table of Contents

Preface, Christoph Markschies, vii
Introduction and Acknowledgements, Lewis Ayres and H. Clifton Ward III, 1
1. “Crazy Guy or Intellectual Leader?: The Seer of Revelation and his Role for the Communities of Asia Minor,” Tobias Nicklas, 7
2. “Papias’ Appeal to the ‘Living and Lasting Voice’ over Books,” Stephen C. Carlson, 25
3. “Tatian, Celsus, and Christianity as ‘Barbarian Philosophy’ in the Late Second Century,” Matthew R. Crawford, 45
4. “Intellectual Independence in Christian and Medical Discourse of the 2nd-3rd Centuries,” Matyáš Havdra, 81
5. “Clement and the Catechumenate in the Late Second Century,” Benjamin A. Edsall, 101
6. “Platonism and Stoicism in Clement of Alexandria: ‘Becoming Like God’,” G. Reydams-Schils 129
7. “Irenaeus and the ‘Rule of Truth’: A Reconsideration,” Lewis Ayres, 145
8. “Christian, Jewish, and Pagan Authority and the Rise of the Christian Intellectual,” Azzan Yadin-Israel, 165
9. “Eusebius’ Gospel Questions and Aristarchus on Homer—Similar Strategies to Save Different ‘Sacred’ Texts,” Francesca Schironi, 193


[1] G.W. Bowersock, ‘Greek Intellectuals and the Imperial Cult in the Second Century A.D’ in Le Culte des souverains dans l’empire romain (Willem Boer, ed.; Geneva: Fondation Hardt, 1973), 179-212.

[2] Maijastina Kahlos, ‘Pagan-Christian Debates over the Interpretation of Texts in Late Antiquity’, The Classical World 105:4 (Summer 2012), 525-545.

[3] Guy G. Stroumsa, ‘The New Self and Reading Practices in Late Antique Christianity’, Church History and Religious Culture 95 (2015), 1-18.

[4] Scholastic Culture in the Hellenistic and Roman Eras: Greek, Latin, and Jewish (Sean A. Adams, ed.; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019).

[5] Kendra Eshleman, The Social World of Intellectuals in the Roman Empire: Sophists, Philosophers, and Christians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Jared Secord, Christian Intellectuals and the Roman Empire: From Justin Martyr to Origen (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2020).