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  • The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies
  • Philip Rousseau
The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies. Edited by Susan Ashbrook Harvey and David G. Hunter. (New York: Oxford University Press. 2008. Pp. xxviii, 1020. $150.00. ISBN 978-0-199-27156-6.)

In books of this kind, two features count for the most: coverage and structure. The structure here, clearly, has been the object of great care. After three chapters headed “Prolegomena” and a splendidly practical section on material and textual evidence (archaeology, epigraphy, codicology, and so on), there are six sections devoted to (1) identities; (2) regions; (3) structure and authority; (4) cultural expressions; (5) rituals, piety, and practice; and (6) theological themes. However, it is not a handbook about early Christianity, with “cogent summary introductions” as the editors put it (p. 2), but about the study of early Christianity. The content of each section consists for the most part in an account of how the modern view of early Christianity has been determined by the methods and preoccupations of those who have studied it: “Contributors were asked to reflect on the main questions or issues that have animated research, to provide an introduction to the relevant primary sources, and to offer some guidance on the directions in which future research might be profitably pursued” (p. 2).

The tone is inevitably set, therefore, by Elizabeth Clark’s introductory chapter “From Patristics to Early Christian Studies” (pp. 8–41, including a 13- page bibliography). The story is of a dissolving of disciplinary boundaries. As in the case of “Late Antiquity,” the centuries that are covered no longer disclose their integral meaning to the specialized scrutiny of theologians or classicists, the hands-on expositors of material culture, or even of historians. Most of the more than forty contributors to the volume have led much of their academic lives within exactly those enclaves. Yet, each chapter here echoes with the industry of its neighbors. Indeed, one may argue, early Christian “studies” are governed as much by loyalty to ancestors and associates as by adherence to the structural principles of a newly defined discipline.

Clark’s account of multiplicity is matched by the accompanying chapters on textuality (by Mark Vessey, pp. 42–65) and on the complex variety of belief and practice that “early Christianity” represents (by Karen King, pp. 66–84). For Vessey, the range of genres and the relational fabric of “textual communities” now familiar to the student of the period are very much in the eyes of the modern beholders, themselves the masters of differing genres and enrolled in textual communities of their own. We are now students of form. How one presented the Christian position—to what audience, through what medium, in what venue—mattered as much as the thought deployed. The result was an increasingly unfettered engagement with the litterati of the age. The voice on the page was a Christian voice, but it was “part of a history unconfined by the Church” (p. 51). The mark of purpose in a text was its desire to renegotiate the boundary between those who spoke and those who [End Page 585] listened—always with a sense of precarious and conditional encroachment or withdrawal. King’s argument follows from that. Inquiry governed by academic ecumenism lays bare a fluidity of circumstance that precisely made necessary (or at least useful) a corresponding rigidity of discourse. The articulation of “orthodoxy” was a formal reaction to obscure or shifting boundaries, not their outcome or nemesis. Early Christianity was not, in other words, a single entity, nor indeed a static one. “Negotiation” was conducted by early Christians as much with one another as with those who did not share their beliefs. That is not to suggest mere chaos or raw competition, nor did it mean defeat for the multiple and victory for the hegemonic. Early Christians justly laid claim to a single arena, but they constantly moved within it according to a complex choreography of argument and historical appeal.

In the section on “Identities,” chapters on Jews (Andrew Jacobs), pagans (Michele Salzman), gnostics (Antti Marjanen), and Manichees (Samuel Lieu) are followed by treatments of Arians (Rebecca Lyman) and Pelagians (Mathijs Lamberigts). The first...


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