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Reviewed by:
  • Stephen Morris
Denis R. Janz, General Editor A People's History of Christianity. 3 vols. Minneapolis: Fortress Press
Vol. 1, Christian Origins (R. Horsley, ed.), 2005
Vol. 2, Late Ancient Christianity (V. Burrus, ed.), 2005
Vol. 3, Byzantine Christianity (D. Krueger, ed.), 2006.

These initial three volumes of a projected seven volume series are excellent examinations of early Christianity. Each collection of essays examines a facet of the period under consideration, and each volume is a jewel for both the scholar (looking to broaden knowledge on a particular subject) and the student as well as for the general public. The essays do presume some basic knowledge of the period dealt with although each volume's introduction provides some background and lays the basic conceptual framework for the essays that follow. Each essay has suggestions for further reading as well as more academic endnotes for those who wish to consult them. The volumes are also amply illustrated with photos, maps, and diagrams. The essays are well laid out with broad margins for notes and highlighted "pull-quotations" from primary documents.

In the typical review format it is a daunting task to attempt an examination [End Page 440] of each essay in these three books. All contributors are known in their respective fields although there is a good mix of younger scholars, whose ideas deserve to be heard, and of more established, better known ones. The inter-disciplinary approach adopted in each volume insures that the essays examine not only a variety of aspects of the various "Christianities" but that these various aspects are looked at from a variety of perspectives. This is truly a "people's history," not an "elite history," or "official history," or the "winners' history." The contributors are able to use the extant documents and monuments to discover the experience of those oft-overlooked participants in and makers of early Christian life in ways unexamined heretofore.

In Christian Origins (volume 1) there are fascinating explorations of slaves in the midst of early Christian communities as well as examinations of poverty and its causes (injustice or God's will?), the eschatological hope of the poor, and peasant responses to Jesus in the Gospels. Also included are critiques of the intended audiences of the various Gospels, the role of women as prophets, and their self-identities teased out of birth accounts. In Late Ancient Christianity (volume 2) we encounter discussions of asceticism/class/gender, the play of children as social ritual, food and ritual power, martyrdom, baptismal architecture, and magical (or superstitious?) practices. Here, too, we learn about the relationship between "heresy" and "orthodoxy" and the interactions among Jews, Christians, and others identified as "dissidents." Byzantine Christianity (volume 3), which deals with the type of Christianity probably least familiar to modern readers, both reveals (in simple but fascinating descriptions) and exposes (for further critical examination) lay piety as discerned in discourses among the elite, a variety of liturgical rites and practices, fascinating accounts of death and dying, and the interconnection among icons, prayer, and vision. This volume also picks up on themes from the second volume as it examines the religious lives of children, adolescents, and adult laywomen.

These volumes would make excellent supplemental reading for introductory courses or for follow-up seminars that examine the period in question in more detail. Educated lay people will also appreciate the discussions, and clergy will find the essays useful in preparing adult education presentations. Judging by the high standards of the volumes available to date, I am confident that the promised volumes (Medieval Christianity, Reformation Christianity, Modern Christianity to 1900, and Twentieth-Century Global Christianity) will be excellent. They should be eagerly awaited by those interested in those periods and snatched up as they become available.

Stephen Morris
New York City


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pp. 440-441
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