By Bart D. Ehrman
OUP (2nd edn. 2015) p/b £35.09 572pp (ISBN 9780195398922)
This book provides an excellent introduction to the general reader wishing to understand the development of early Christianity between the years AD 100—300, the years in which it was working out doctrines, liturgical practices and the boundaries of its canon of sacred texts in a pagan world, before the accession of Constantine and the subsequent Christianisation of the whole Roman empire in the fourth century. Written in a lucid style, uncluttered by footnotes (other than acknowledgements of translations/biblical references) and with clear explanation of all technical terms, the book’s strength is undoubtedly its focus on a) the diversity and variety within early Christianity (or should we speak of Christianities?), b) changes and developments over time within this period, and c) the doctrinal debates which raged within the first few centuries of Christian history, none of which are always clear to non-specialists. E. tells the tale of the early Christian movements through a selection of primary texts (all translated), thus allowing us to see at first hand the diversity of belief amongst the early followers of the Jesus movement; thankfully, the length of the texts means that we are able to read important quotations in their wider contexts. Each chapter starts with a brief introductory survey, an up-to-date bibliography of important secondary literature, and a brief introduction to each text and author (if known), including approximate date and geographical provenance.
After a general introduction surveying the scope of the book (and laying out the limitations of our evidence due to the loss and/or destruction in later centuries of non-orthodox texts—i.e. those which did not conform to the now accepted doctrines of the church), and a brief look at conversion (ch. 2), E. takes us in chapters 3-9 through an examination of the intellectual and material instability of early Christianity. He starts with texts relating to the physical persecution of Christians, Christian martyrdom and the intellectual attack on Christianity by such pagan authors as Porphyry and Celsus (chs. 3/4) and the resulting Christian defence (ch.4).
Further instability and uncertainty are evident in a series of texts relating to Christian anti-Judaic writing: ch. 5, an important reminder of Christianity’s Jewish roots and of one of the key origins of the Christian anti-Semitism which was such a prominent feature of late Antique and medieval Europe; ch. 6, Christian writings later deemed ‘heretical’, which consists mainly of texts written by so-called ‘Gnostic’ groups and itself serves as an important reminder of the diversity of belief within the early Christian movement; and a complementary chapter dealing with writings against these very ‘heretics’ by authors who would later be deemed ‘orthodox’ (that is to say, correct in their beliefs). The heavy focus in these chapters on doctrinal debate, both within Christianity and between Christians and their earliest critics, is a reminder of the exclusivity of early Christianity and thus the desire of Christians to control which texts were read and which were not; this leads nicely on to chapters on early Christian ‘apocrypha’ (defined in this book as texts falsely written in the name of the apostles, ch. 8) and the first lists of texts deemed worthy by the early church of inclusion in its canon (ch. 9, again a welcome reminder that it took a long time for early Christians to decide which texts they considered to be sacred).
Chapters 10-16 look more towards the development of orthodox Christian beliefs and practices, but the theme of diversity is still very much evident. E. surveys early Christian biblical interpretation and homilies (chs. 10 and 11), the development of a hierarchical structure within the church and of standardised liturgical practices (chs. 12 and 13), and the role and place of women as laid down by the male writers of these texts (ch. 14); in this chapter, he interestingly suggests that a strong devotion to Christ and a subsequent refusal to marry may have been one way in which early Christian women could break free from the conventions and demands of the patriarchal society in which they lived. E. finishes with an examination of ethics (ch. 15) and with the theological writings of those theologians who would later be considered to be orthodox (ch. 16), the culmination, as he notes, of the book’s examination of Christianity’s ‘exclusivity and its focus on doctrine’ (p. 529).
The texts themselves span a variety of genres and come from a variety of places, and they are not all easy to read. Moreover, readers will find themselves wanting to refer back frequently to previous chapters to be reminded of who (say) Marcion was, or what exactly the Valentinians believed, etc., and might have been aided in their task by the inclusion of an index to the introductory sections. In addition, a map would have been a very welcome addition, especially to help readers to visualise the areas which have produced peculiarly large numbers of Christian thinkers (e.g. North Africa) and/or manuscripts (e.g. Egypt). But these are minor considerations, and E. is to be congratulated on presenting these texts in as accessible a way as possible to a wide audience.
Sam Baddeley—Eastbourne College